Rural residents wary of rickety bridges in Alaska

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2008

TRAPPER CREEK - Buried under a few feet of snow, the one-lane bridge over Cottonwood Creek on Oilwell Road looks safe, but for the signs warning of a three-ton weight limit.

Two small signs, each bearing a scant four words.

But as the 15 or so residents who live near the bridge know, those words pack a punch.

For Nancy Richar, 62, who lives near Cottonwood Creek, the three-ton limit means she had to convince the guy who delivers her firewood to haul it one cord at a time instead of in one big load, she said.

She packs five-gallon containers in her Subaru to carry fuel to power her generator. Others living along Oilwell Road carry 55-gallon barrels in the back of their pickups and meet fuel delivery trucks on the other side of the bridge. Landowners hoping to build new cabins there can't get lumber and building material delivered across it. Ambulance service ends at the bridge.

Mark Forrester, manager of the Crowley fuel store on Talkeetna Spur Road, said fuel trucks crossing a weight-restricted bridge take a big chance. If something goes awry and the bridge is damaged or fuel is spilled in the stream, the company can be held liable for damage, he said.

The new delivery setup isn't much of a hassle, Forrester said. Crowley delivers to only two or three customers along that part of the road, typically just once a year.

"It's just having to find ways to make everything work because of a stupid bridge that never should have gone in to begin with," Richar said.

•••••

Residents of Oilwell Road aren't alone in seeing weight restrictions placed on neighborhood bridges. State inspectors last year downgraded eight bridges in Mat-Su, borough public works director Keith Rountree said.

"The main reason was, they're all old railroad cars," Rountree said. Except for the bridge on Oilwell Road, it's a heavy-duty flatbed trailer originally meant for use on the North Slope haul road.

Rich Pratt, chief bridge engineer for the state Transportation Department, said federal law requires state inspectors to examine "every publicly owned, publicly used bridge" in the state.

The three-ton load limits were imposed on the flatcar bridges because those bridges were not supported correctly. Pratt said Alaska Railroad officials say their flatcars can generally hold up to 27.5 tons if they are properly supported. That is, if bridge supports go where the wheels of the rail car would have been.

But most flatcars aren't installed that way. They're generally supported only at each end, which Pratt said limits their load-bearing capacity as bridges.

So state bridge inspectors recommended that a borough engineer examine each bridge and rate them individually, rather than lump them under a rule-of-thumb three-ton rating.

"That particular number is the lowest we can rate it down to and allow it to stay open," Pratt said.

•••••

Replacement would also solve the matter, Pratt said, and would eliminate some of the other problems that accompany rail-car bridges, which are often installed because they're inexpensive.

The bridges tend to be one-lane only and may provide problems with snow removal. It's often difficult to install a secure bridge rail on the sides, and the timbers, often exposed to creeks below, tend to wear out quickly, he said.

Rountree said seven other bridges are also on the list for repairs. All told, Rountree estimates fixing or replacing those 15 borough bridges would cost $3.6 million.

The borough is seeking state and federal help, and Mat-Su Assembly members on Tuesday set aside $400,000 to match what they hope will be a larger pool of money.

•••••

The news that the Assembly was putting money down to fix the problem, even if work isn't starting yet, was good news to Richar. She said she's been fighting for improvements to Oilwell Road for nearly as long as she's lived there.

"We were out of sight, out of mind," Richar said of her 20-year battle for better roads.

Oilwell Road stretches 18 miles, from Petersville Road, a popular stretch for snowmachining, to a logging camp. Some residents, like Richar, got the land through state lotteries and, for many years, accessed their cabins by four-wheeler and snowmachine.

At Cottonwood Creek, a logger in 2001 installed the flatbed trailer as a bridge. The bridge and improved road that resulted led to a development boom along Oilwell Road.

Gary Baker, who lives at Mile 12.3 with his wife, Pauline, moved there permanently after several years of spending their weekends at their Amber Lake cabin.

"When the loggers came in and built the road, due to the economy and my age, I said, 'Hey, the hell with Anchorage, I'm going to move to the lake permanently,"' Baker said.

He and his wife built a modern home there. Gary Baker is the primary supervisor for the Trapper Creek Road Service Area, meaning he hears a lot of complaints about the condition of roads and, with two other supervisors, has some say in how road taxes are spent.

Oilwell Road residents aren't alone in complaining about the condition of borough roads and bridges, Baker said.

"We're not the squeaky wheel. We're just one of many whiners," Baker said.





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