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Anchorage

New detour opens for Glenn Highway commuters after a day of frustration

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: March 23, 2018
  • Published March 22, 2018

Traffic moves toward the new access to the Glenn Highway just past the South Eagle River overpass on Friday. Cranes are in position at the bridge as repair work starts. A truck transporting a modular building crashed into the interchange overpass on Wednesday, causing extensive damage. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Anchorage-bound commuters Friday have a new Glenn Highway detour past the bridge that was badly damaged Wednesday by an 18-wheeler.

Social media reports indicated traffic was slowed at the detour but moving steadily.

"The new traffic pattern works!!!" one commuter posted on a Glenn Highway chat group on Facebook early Friday. "1 hr 15 min from Houston to JBER. Valley peeps, fight the urge to take the (North Eagle River) exit!!! Stay with it and use the new detour."

Another commuter posted around 7:30 a.m.: "Chugiak to Boniface (inbound), via Glenn Hwy in 23 minutes…I'm speechless."

Anchorage-bound vehicles cross a new one-lane access ramp to the Glenn Highway just past the South Eagle River interchange on Friday morning. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Eagle River schools closed Friday

Chugiak and Eagle River schools will be closed Friday due to the significant traffic delays, the Anchorage School District said in a written statement.

Students who live in the Chugiak and Eagle River areas and attend Anchorage programs will not have school bus transportation.

"Absences will be excused. Parents can choose to transport their children into Anchorage if desired," the school district said.

"Students who attend the Alaska Middle College School will maintain a normal schedule tomorrow. Transportation will be provided for these students," the school district said.

Schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough weren't affected and would be open Friday, said spokesperson Jillian Morrissey.

A long, trying day

The new detour came after a long day for people traveling into Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. Some turned around after hours inching forward in their vehicles. Others ventured on – arriving in Alaska's largest city five hours later.

But there were some bright spots – like a man dressed in a turtle costume dancing on the side of the road – to help ease the tension.

Meredith Lewis snapped a photo of Jack Cato in a turtle costume around 9:45 a.m. Thursday at Lee Street and Eagle River Road. “Turtle man had quite the pep in his step and was just strolling down the sidewalk. It put a smile on the faces of the drivers stuck in traffic for sure!”

On Thursday, commuters were re-routed past the South Eagle River exit into the community of Eagle River after a truck carrying a modular home struck the overpass, causing almost $2 million in damages.

Starting Friday, the Glenn Highway will be down to one lane near the North Eagle River Access Road, said Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for DOT.

Vehicles will follow the exit at Artillery Road, around the damaged bridge. Then, cars will go down Eagle View Drive for several hundred feet and exit off a ramp that crews built Thursday.

The detour is expected to remain in place until Monday, when the highway is expected to reopen, McCarthy said.

Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said flaggers and traffic control in the area would be "very apparent."

Alaska Department of Transportation workers create a new entrance to the Glenn Highway just past the damaged South Eagle River overpass on Thursday afternoon.  (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

‘Still not going to be perfect’

The road closure wreaked havoc on commuters.

"We knew that the commute this morning was going to be difficult," Doll said. "It's still not going to be perfect. There's still going to be significant delays (Friday)."

Wasilla resident Ray Willard, a Boeing 747 captain for Atlas Air, said he flew from Hong Kong at 620 knots on Wednesday. Thursday, Willard spent three and a half hours returning to the airport from Wasilla to pick up his wife.

Willard tried to find a way off the highway following the fastest-route advice of his GPS system to the Old Glenn Highway and other back roads. It didn't help, he said.

"Apparently it was calculating it for everybody else, too," Willard said.

After more than three hours in traffic Thursday morning, Josh Edwards decided to turn around and head home to Anchorage. On the drive back Edwards spotted a truck that seemingly tried to cross the median and got stuck. March 22, 2018. (Photo by Josh Edwards)

But there was also a silver lining, as community members reached out to help and entertain people stuck in their cars.

Reverend Tim McConville, a pastor at United Methodist Church of Chugiak, handed out bottled water to commuters Thursday afternoon.

"People really needed it. I was surprised," McConville said. On Thursday, he only had one case of water. He's stocked up with seven cases to hand out Friday.

Taken 9:11 a.m. across the Old Glenn Highway from Fred Meyer. “They were just sitting and waving at all of us in the traffic,” Christine Taylor wrote in a Facebook message. Her trip to her children’s school, which normally only takes 5 minutes, took half an hour Thursday, she said. (Photo by Christine Taylor)

Laci Jones was stuck in traffic on the Briggs Bridge near Walmart when a boy and his mother came up to her car door. He handed her a fig bar. “He goes, ‘I hope you have a nice day,’ ” Jones said.“It’s just cool, when stuff like this happens you see the community step out of our comfort zone.”

And then there was turtle man. Jack Cato borrowed his sister-in-law’s turtle costume Thursday.

"I can see the traffic from my house in Eagle River," Cato wrote in a Facebook message. "Thought it would be funny to walk faster than traffic in it. Then well I felt like dancing."

For Jones, the commute took five hours, and she ended up missing a day of work. On Friday, she was planning to get out the door four hours early.

"Gotta make a paycheck," Jones said.

Beyond the closure's impact to commuters, it's brought up big questions for Jones, who worried about issues of safety in the event of a major catastrophe.

"How would we get to evacuate? … What do we do? Is there a plan of action? Is there another way out of the valley?" Jones said.

Lily O’Mara, and a neighbor and friend Alexis Sammartino sold tea and cocoa Thursday morning, March 22, 2018, in a driveway on South Birchwood Loop in Chugiak, AK. The girls saw opportunity during the Glenn Highway traffic detour, prompted by the damage to the South Eagle River overpass the day before. (Photo by Kristina Theresa Ferro O’Mara)

On Thursday evening, crews were working to build the ramp that would be used for the morning commute. The ramp, made out of recycled asphalt product, will be a "fairly flat," single lane onto the highway, McCarthy said.

State crews and police hope that bypassing Eagle River will cut back on some of the stop-and-go of through traffic. Although commuters won't have to detour through the community, that route will still be open.

State crews had decided not to use one lane of the outbound highway as a detour, McCarthy said, because the emergency turn around was too far south.

"That would keep people in a single, two-way opposing traffic configuration for much longer," McCarthy said, which crews worried would stall traffic even more.

The Glenn Highway is "the busiest transportation link in Alaska, and it's completely severed," police chief Doll said. "And that doesn't happen very often, especially for this length of time."

Doll said that Friday's detour route was expected to continue through the weekend.

At Eagle River Charter School, about a quarter of the students were absent on Thursday, said Tamara Gagnon, administrative assistant. Gagnon's 10-mile commute took three hours on Thursday, she said.

"This is as bad as I've experienced and I've lived here for 25 years," Gagnon said.

Theresa Bundy wore a dinosaur costume and held a sign that said “You’re almost there” to backed-up traffic from a pedestrian bridge over Eagle River Loop Road. “Just easing the tension,” Bundy said. Traffic was backed up on Eagle River Loop Road after the Glenn Highway was closed to inbound vehicles on Thursday. (Marc Lester / ADN)

All state employees that work for the executive branch (as opposed to the court system or Legislature) and live in the Eagle River area or farther north can stay home Friday, said Leslie Ridle, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Administration. Monday is Seward's Day, a state holiday.

Anchorage courts will be open. Employees who commute from Eagle River or farther north will be able to stay home, but they will need to use personal leave, said Alaska Court System human resources director, Lee Powelson.

A Veterans Affairs Representative from the Anchorage Regional Benefits Office will be stationed at the Wasilla Vet Center "for the duration of the highway closure to assist Veterans who are unable to travel to Anchorage," the federal agency said in a written release.

Meanwhile, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was operating normally, said Joshua Jaspers, spokesperson for the base.

"There's no real issues with any of the operations or base closures," he said.

Photojournalist Marc Lester contributed to this story.

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