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Rugged McCarthy Road gets upgrade amid outcry over public process

Zaz Hollander
DOT workers put a new surface on the McCarthy Road at approximately Mile 7 on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. Department of Transportation photo

A state upgrade is smoothing part of the famously rough McCarthy Road but riling locals who say officials excluded the public in a rush to spend federal dollars.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities last week started a three-week, $1.6 million project to spread a hard surface over the first third of the gravel road notorious for washboards, potholes and hairy corners.

The work starts 3 miles from the Edgerton Highway and ends 14 miles up the road at the more than 230-foot-high Kuskulana Bridge.

The road is an institution, a narrow ribbon built in the early 1970s atop a 100-year-old railbed threading from Chitina nearly 60 miles past wild rivers and massive peaks to within a mile of the historic yet funky mining town of McCarthy inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the nation’s largest.

The McCarthy area has a permanent population of about 45 but swells to about 25,000 with the tourists and workers of summer, according to the local newspaper.

Locals view the road project with a range of opinions, not surprising given the “pave or don’t pave” road debate that’s divided the community for decades. But the one thing people seem to agree on this summer is that DOT bureaucracy did a poor job involving the public before work started.

The project needed more vetting from the community, given the odds that drivers on the new section will ignore the 35 mph limit and the resulting wrecks could tax the volunteer corps of emergency responders, said Mark Vail, a longtime resident and president of the nonprofit McCarthy Area Council.

“We’ve always said we wanted a safe, drivable surface. We didn’t want a high-speed surface,” Vail said. “It’s a dead-end road, and part of being out here is the experience of going to someplace remote.”

 

Use it or lose it

Travel on the McCarthy Road is a no-go for tour companies and most Anchorage rental car businesses spooked by tire-popping rocks, slick mud and blind curves. It stops a mile short of McCarthy; visitors walk over a bridge across the Kennicott River or get shuttled in. 

The road is still rough enough that only a certain kind of traveler tends to attempt it, making it a tourist filter that, for some, defines McCarthy.

“It’s the last frontier of the Last Frontier. That’s why people want to go there,” said Stanley Bogdan, owner of A-1 Car Rental in Anchorage, who puts McCarthy customers in a Jeep Liberty with at least one full-size spare tire and sometimes a shotgun for bears. “Because the tour buses don’t go there yet.”

The ongoing roadwork won’t bring the buses in yet.

State transportation officials are careful to say that the “high float” upgrade isn’t pavement -- it’s crushed rock over emulsion oil, similar to chip seal -- but the section from Mile 3 to Mile 17 will be the closest thing to paving in the road’s history.

The state says the new surface should reduce maintenance and dust over its 10-year life.

The $1.6 million cost of the project came from a 2005 earmark for a larger road upgrade, according to DOT spokesperson Meadow Bailey. The funding expired in 2010 and DOT risked losing it if work wasn’t completed this summer, Bailey wrote in an email.

 

Decision before dialogue?

Concern became official in early July when the McCarthy Area Council sent DOT a letter criticizing the decision to go ahead with a project of this scope without more public involvement.

The state held open houses on the road upgrade in Chitina and McCarthy and a brief, six-day comment period only after the federal funds for the project were already in the pipeline and it was too late to change course, Vail wrote in the July 9 letter.

“In the future, we request formal notification and the opportunity to make comment before the expenditure of funds obstructs due process,” he wrote.

He urged DOT to consult with community members as well as the National Park Service before undertaking any major changes to the 4 miles of road between McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine. He also praised local road crews that keep the road open year-round.

DOT received more than 60 comments on the road upgrade, according to Bailey.

David Miller, DOT’s Fairbanks-based northern region director of maintenance and operations, responded to Vail with an email on July 18 saying the agency saw no consensus among those comments.

"(T)there was not a clear majority either for or against the high float project,” Miller wrote.

The agency heard no objection from various stakeholders including the Park Service, Chitina Native Corp. and traditional village council, or Ahtna Inc., he said. The Alaska Historical Preservation Office concurred with DOT’s finding that the project wouldn’t adversely affect any historic properties.

Given all that and the reduced maintenance expected to follow the upgrade, DOT chose to proceed, Miller wrote. “Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment and be involved in the public process.”

 

Mixed feelings

Work on the McCarthy Road has drawn fiery debate since the 1970s as tourist-minded residents seek better access while isolation-seekers hope to keep the masses at bay. Over the years, division has erupted over plans to replace a self-powered tram at the end of the road with a pedestrian bridge or put in a private bridge like the one locals can pay to use now. 

Asked about the new paving project, a half-dozen McCarthy residents interviewed last week expressed everything from unabashed joy at the prospect of an easier drive to worries about speeding and pavement someday leading all the way to town.

But it’s unlikely, several said, that a better surface on the first third of the road will dramatically change the growing flow of tourists right now.

Neil Darish, owner of McCarthy Lodge and several other businesses in town, said he didn’t like the way the state handled community input but supported the project overall.

“They did not, in effect, ruin the entire charm of the road. I don’t think we lose that filter,” Darish said. “I think people who won’t drive 60 miles of gravel road won’t drive 40 miles of gravel road.”

Bonnie Kenyon owns a bed-and-breakfast near road’s end with her husband, Rick, editor of the Wrangell St. Elias News. Kenyon said the couple already sees road-weary travelers in motor homes and truck campers despite the road’s condition.

“If it brings in more people, they’re already coming,” Kenyon said. “They want to come. I say let 'em' come and let 'em have some comfort. If this wasn’t the nation’s largest national park, maybe I’d think different, but it is.”

 

Road glaciers, begone

The road has gotten far better since the bad old days, when errant rail spikes lurked in wait for passing tires.

Since 2011 alone, DOT has spent $4.4 million on improvements including widening, resurfacing and drainage work as well as permanent repairs to the road and Edgerton Highway to fix damage from an October 2006 flood, according to Bailey.

The state in winter plows down the sometimes 8- or 10-foot-tall “road glaciers” created by frozen seeps that force drivers to chain up just to get up and over them, said Mark Wacht, an NPS employee who works at Kennecott and lives in McCarthy.

Though the new project has again raised the question of paving the road to McCarthy, state officials are adamant that they don’t plan additional high-float upgrades on the rest of the road.

“Most sections of the McCarthy Road do not meet the conditions required for high float and we will not have funding available for additional improvements,” Bailey said in an email.

Contact Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com.