Construction on the Sterling Highway started in August of 2017 and is forecast to be complete in 2019. Photos courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
If you’ve driven between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula this summer, chances are you waved at a Granite Construction Company flagger or waited while Granite crews worked. The company is working on two large road projects in the central region of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities this season.
The first project is from Milepost 58 to 79 of the Sterling Highway, where Granite is doing everything from repaving the existing highway to installing wildlife enhancement features.
Shaun Combs, Alaska DOT&PF project engineer for the Sterling Milepost 58-79 project, said construction began in August 2017 and should wrap up in August 2019. At this point, Combs said the first 2 miles of paving for Milepost 77 to 79 have been completed and Granite is preparing to pave from Milepost 63 to 65 this summer.
Eighteen miles of the Sterling Highway project run through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaska DOT&PF partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct collaring studies on moose and caribou in the area. Cynthia Ferguson, design project manager for DOT&PF on the project, said that data helped select the placement of five wildlife undercrossings.
“Nationwide there’s a lot of states that have done undercrossings, but there’s not a lot for moose,” Ferguson said. “We’re kind of unique in that we have a large moose population, so I think it’ll be of interest to figure out what moose prefer.”
Granite Construction has finished two of the undercrossings and is completing the third this summer. Derek Betts, Alaska region manager for Granite Construction, said building wildlife crossings was a first for the company, but it has worked on similar structures in the past.
“The animal crossings are similar to other multi-plate crossings we have constructed either for vehicular traffic, water passage and pedestrian traffic. Now we get to add animal traffic,” Betts said. “It will be exciting to see the animals using them when we are complete.”
A post-construction follow-up study of the new structures will track how wildlife are using the undercrossings. Refuge officials plan to set up cameras and do additional collaring studies to test the crossings’ efficacy.
The Sterling Highway will also include a more common design feature: a pedestrian underpass for adventure seekers who want to hike the Skyline Trail, which begins across the highway from the trailhead parking lot. The underpass will also be accompanied by improvements to the parking lot and an information kiosk.
The Sterling Highway can get crowded with fishers during the dipnetting season, and Granite has to work around their traffic. Alan Drake, the DOT&PF construction project manager, said the project contract includes a requirement to keep traffic unrestricted through July, so Granite had to work on tasks off the main highway during the day and focus on highway work throughout the night.
Granite Construction is also working on another big project on the Seward Highway, from Milepost 75 to 90. While the Seward project wasn’t restricted from stopping traffic in July, employees still had to work at night to avoid dipnetting traffic.
“Literally during dipnetting, the traffic lets up some at night, but it’s like daytime traffic all through the night, with people trying to hit the tides,” said Ted Meyer, the DOT&PF project engineer for the Seward Highway 75-90 project.
For both the Seward and Sterling Highway projects, traffic is being monitored to estimate when the busiest periods of the day are, and then the contractor works during the times with the least amount of traffic.
“My Granite crew — they’ve been really great with dealing with me (and) all my traffic concerns. Every time I go to them, they’ve been really amicable and just working with me on all that,” Meyer said.
Granite Construction Company is working on phase one of the Seward Highway 75-90 project. Phase two of the project has not yet been posted for bidding by the Department of Transportation.
The Seward Highway Milepost 75 to 90 job is the first phase of a two-phase project that started in April. Meyer expects the first phase to be complete in October 2020. When both phases are complete, the project will rehabilitate or replace nine bridges on the roadway, extend the life of the highway and add new safety features.
Sean Baski, design project manager for DOT&PF, said Alaska has more than 1,000 bridges and, of the top 15 bridges that most need to be replaced, seven are on this stretch of the Seward Highway.
Granite is working on temporary bridge plan submittals. After their plans are approved, the company will begin replacing the Virgin Creek Bridge and the Peterson Creek Bridge.
Another unique feature of this project is the marine mammal monitoring provision. Because the construction is occurring next to prime beluga whale habitat, a marine monitor will watch for marine mammal activity. When the contractor installs riprap, drives pile or does other work, they may be stopped at the sight of marine life.
“If we encounter any marine life — belugas or seals or any other whale or any other marine life — we have to shut down,” Meyer said.
The goal of both projects is to improve the safety and longevity of the highways. On the Seward Highway, 5 miles of passing lanes are being added.
“One of the concerns is that there’s no passing lanes in this 15-mile stretch. So we’ve got driver frustration being built up, and then people pass wherever they can. There’s passing allowed in most of the corridor, and people are taking chances passing when maybe they shouldn’t,” Baski said.
A Granite Construction Company crew works on one of several animal undercrossings for the company's project on the Sterling Highway.
The passing lanes will be mile-long installments several times throughout the 15-mile stretch.
“Ultimately our contractors are our partners because we’re all trying to do the same thing (and) get to the same end goal: provide a good product for the public,” Baski said.
Betts said Granite has great employees — with an estimated 50 people working on each project during peak employment — and, “It is thanks to them that we are able to procure and construct projects (such) as these.”
“Both projects have their own individual aspects and requirements that make every day or every shift interesting,” Betts said. “Overall, we are excited to have the opportunity to work on these two projects to help improve the roadway and the safety of the individual corridors.”
Phase two of the Seward Highway Milepost 75 to 90 project has not yet been advertised for bidding, but officials at DOT&PF hope to see construction on the second phase of the highway start after the first phase is completed in 2020. Plans for the second phase include replacing the remaining five bridges, improving access to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and smoothing out the curve in the highway near the Portage Glacier area.
Cheyenne Mathews is a freelance writer living in Anchorage.