Ten days after a 7.0 earthquake damaged roads throughout Southcentral Alaska, almost all of them are fully open again. But transportation officials warn the fixes are only temporary and construction crews will be back on the roads come summer.
The earthquake buckled portions of major thoroughfares in Anchorage, including the Glenn Highway at Mirror Lake and the Minnesota Drive off-ramp to International Airport Road. It also did considerable damage to routes with less traffic like Vine Road in Wasilla. After a week of around-the-clock construction work, the damaged areas now show little sign of the disaster.
The repairs were made so quickly that some Internet users have doubted whether photos of the progress were real. Fact-checkers at Snopes had to assure skeptics that widely circulated before-and-after photos of the buckled Minnesota Drive on-ramp are, in fact, authentic.
“We are so pleased with how quickly we were able to respond,” said Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation.
The department said in a series of tweets last week that the unusual recovery speed was due in part to former Gov. Bill Walker’s disaster declaration, which gave the department both the funding to do emergency repairs and the freedom to bypass the usual permit and environmental review processes that typically accompany construction projects. Terry Dolan, public works director for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, said the ready availability of skilled workers and equipment during the winter also played a role.
However, transportation officials say the speedy repairs come with a caveat: They’re only placeholders. Crews will have to come back in the summer and redo the work to make permanent repairs.
“We’re slapping bandages on this damage so we can keep people and goods moving on our roadways,” the transportation department said on Facebook. “We’ll come back later and make it right, but it will take longer.”
McCarthy said that ideally, a road should be built to last at least 20 years. The repairs made in the past week don’t meet those standards because the first priority was making the roads usable again, McCarthy said.
“We look at reconnecting the critical infrastructure so that it can be used,” she said.
Construction crews have had to employ less-than-ideal techniques and materials to do that, like using regular paint instead of the typical reflective paint for road surface markings. Dolan, the public works director in Mat-Su, said the weather is another big reason the repairs are only temporary.
“In the wintertime, it’s not feasible to do quality road construction,” Dolan said. In cold weather, asphalt doesn’t compact correctly and unwanted water gets into the construction materials when they freeze, he said.
One consequence of that is the roads aren’t as durable. Dolan expects the repaired roads in Mat-Su to deteriorate much more rapidly than roads constructed under normal conditions, although the extent and speed of the deterioration is impossible to predict now. Drivers may encounter heaving or cracking in the pavement, he said.
However, if another earthquake happens, McCarthy said, the temporary repairs are built to withstand it.
Since the permanent repairs won’t be made under an emergency declaration, though, drivers shouldn’t expect the same speedy turnaround time in the summer that they saw last week. The permanent projects will be subject to all the usual permitting and review processes, and that will extend the timeline for construction.
However, drivers also shouldn’t expect the same traffic delays they saw after the earthquake. Because the roads won’t be impassable this time, there won’t be a need for total road closures, McCarthy said.
"It would look a great deal different,” she said. “We would not do a total shutdown of traffic.”
In the event a total road closure had to be done, McCarthy said, it would be at a time that affected the fewest number of drivers, such as between midnight and 4 a.m.