Funding available to start repairs on Westchester Lagoon bridge, officials say

Laurel Andrews
Workers prepare to remove a wood chipper after a bridge near Westchester Lagoon collapsed when a Gage Tree Service truck was driving north on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to a job site on Monday. Bill Roth

City officials have gathered funds to begin repairing the Westchester Lagoon pedestrian bridge that collapsed Monday morning, but the timeline to complete the fix is unclear.

"We will be working as fast as we can to re-open the trail at this point. However, the Coastal Trail is one of our most beloved trails and we need to repair the bridge safely and to the highest standard that we can," city parks superintendent Holly Spoth-Torres wrote in an email.

The city has residual funds left over from both the Coastal Trail and Bridge Surface Rehabilitation Project and Greenbelt Trail Bridge Improvement project, which will get the repairs started, Spoth-Torres wrote in an email. Additionally, a portion of a $4 million state grant can help to repair or replace 3 of the 6 bridges on the Coastal Trail, she wrote.

The bridge's failure may be part of a larger problem plaguing the municipality - a lack of funding leading to a backlog of maintenance projects, both Spoth-Torres and former Anchorage Parks and Recreation director Jeff Dillon said Thursday.

The bridge had been resurfaced last summer, as part of the Coastal Trail and Bridge Surface Rehabilitation Project. Roughly $120,000 was spent on resurfacing all six Coastal Trail bridges, she said. The resurfacing project completed last year did not contribute to the structure's collapse, according to an engineer who examined the bridge, Spoth -Torres wrote.

The bridge collapsed Monday morning as a Gage Tree Service crew drove a pick-up truck and wood chipper over the 70-foot structure. The truck and wood chipper combined weighed roughly 14,000 pounds, Spoth-Torres wrote. The city will know whether the bridge was rated to hold that much weight when the "cause of failure" report is completed. The Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department has hired a team of engineers to complete a report by next week, Spoth-Torres wrote. Five other bridges along the trail will also be evaluated, following the incident.

The Westchester Lagoon bridge was built in 1987, and while maintenance had been performed several times to the bridge's decking - the uppermost layer - the substructure had not been repaired since it was constructed, Spoth-Torres said Monday.

Jeff Dillon, former director of Parks and Recreation in Anchorage from 2004 to 2010, said from Colorado that lack of maintenance on Anchorage's trail system has been an issue for decades.

Ample funding in the 1980s allowed for the construction of many large public projects, including the downtown Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, the Z.J. Loussac Public Library -- which today is also in need of repairs -- and the Coastal Trail, among other projects, Dillon said. But when a budget crunch hit the state in the late 1980's, funding decreased significantly, Dillon said.

"When the money started to dry up they didn't have funds to take care of what they had," he said.

"People love parks ... but they weren't willing to pay taxes," Dillon said.

With funding cut, the city "never had the money to do annual maintenance" necessary to extend the life of infrastructure, Dillon said. When structures are not maintained "it comes back to bite you," he said.

Dillon said that when he left the department in 2010, there was a major backlog of projects needing maintenance. He said deferred maintenance is a "major issue" for the city of Anchorage, and nationwide. Spoth-Torres confirmed that the department faced budget cuts in the late 1980s and early 90's, leading to a number of deferred maintenance projects that the city began to tackle three years ago.

The department is "slowly chipping away at this deferred maintenance problem," she said. In 2011, the city began putting aside 5 to 7 percent of recreational project bonds that is now used to tackle such maintenance.

"If we hadn't have started this work back in 2011, we would be in way worse condition than we are today," she said.

The Coastal Trail was the first on the list for backlogged repairs, with resurfacing and asphalt repairs completed last summer. Repair of the bridges, including the Westchester Lagoon bridge, were also on the list, Spoth-Torres said.

After the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, the city plans to tackle repairs to the Chester Creek trail, then the Campbell Creek trail, she said.

Spoth-Torres is hoping the public will rally around these projects and support bonds for Anchorage's recreational areas.