As bridge fix continues, Glenn Highway congestion could go on for days

A small building on a semi trailer collided with a bridge over the Glenn Highway on Wednesday, March 21, forcing the highway’s closure. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

Traffic has been a major headache for thousands of Southcentral Alaska commuters due to a reroute of the Glenn Highway between the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Anchorage.

Listen now

A tall load on a semi trailer collided with a highway overpass bridge on Wednesday, and damage to the bridge forced transportation officials to close the highway’s southbound lanes. Then the state’s busiest commute was detoured through Eagle River on Thursday, causing hours-long delays.

The fallout has prompted closures Friday for schools in Eagle River and Chugiak.

Anchorage police also announced later Thursday that a ramp off the highway is being converted to allow traffic around the damaged bridge without going through downtown Eagle River again. But police warned there would be one lane at that spot and likely still traffic congestion.

An average of 57,000 vehicles travel the Glenn Highway every day on a commute that’s usually less than one hour for most. Thursday morning’s commute funneled all of those drivers into Eagle River, choking the small community’s streets, and many drivers trying to get to Anchorage were stuck in their cars for five hours or more.

“Obviously, this is a huge inconvenience,” Shannon McCarthy, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, said.

McCarthy said the inconvenience is a necessary precaution, because pieces of the damaged bridge could still come off.

“That’s our main concern, is cars driving under it and potentially having the span fall,” McCarthy said.

A prefabricated building carried atop an 18-wheeler slammed into the bridge Wednesday, shearing off the top of the building and leaving splintered wood and chunks of concrete all over the highway. Photos of the semi indicate it is owned by Bighorn Enterprises. Calls to the Fairbanks-based trucking company went unanswered Thursday.

Police said the driver was uninjured and there are no early indications he or she was driving impaired or broke any traffic laws. But while DOT says the semi was permitted to carry an oversize load, the load was apparently too tall for the bridge and the damage was extensive.

“When our bridge inspectors were really able to get up there and look at it, what they really found is the whole thing was shattered, so the concrete is pulverized and it’s not holding any weight anymore,” McCarthy said. “And the most problematic part of it is that falling onto the southbound lanes.”

The bridge’s clearance is listed at a little over 18 feet, and McCarthy said the semi’s permit was for a load up to 17 feet tall. It’s unclear how tall the load actually was.

McCarthy said DOT is still looking into who is at fault in the accident and, ultimately, whether the shipping company might be held liable for the cost of repairing the bridge.

“It’s going to be an investigation,” McCarthy said.

To get the highway reopened, McCarthy said workers will first have to remove some concrete and a one hundred-ton steel girder on one side of the bridge. That could take three to five days. She said reinstalling a new girder will be done later and will involve shutting down the highway again.

“That’s going to be a longer project and when we do replace, we’re going to want to pick a time period that is low volume. And we’re going to have to do both the removal and replacement from on top of the bridge,” McCarthy said.

DOT has asked the state for an emergency appropriation of $1.8 million dollars for the total repair cost, McCarthy said.

Meantime, criticism of the detour route from drivers stuck in traffic for hours who were trying to get to jobs, appointments or to the airport was fierce. Anchorage police spokesperson M.J. Thim said the decision to route traffic through Eagle River was made in the interest of safety after the initial highway closure.

“It’s a small concentrated area, you’ve got a major highway, but outside of that, you’ve got residential roads and smaller roads, so the options were limited,” Thim said.

Not all of the reaction was negative, though. Posts on the Facebook group Glenn Highway Traffic Report showed someone dressed in a turtle costume running alongside backed up traffic faster than the cars were moving. A couple people also sat in lawn chairs offering moral support with a sign that read “Hang in there.”

Then there were young entrepreneurs like Alexis Sammartino and Lily O’Mara.

“We decided to start a hot chocolate and tea stand so people can buy it to pass the time,” Sammartino said.

“We’ve made seven dollars!” O’Mara said.

“We decided to split it equally,” Sammartino said.

“Fifty-fifty”

“Yeah, fifty fifty.”