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Anchorage-bound commuters endure epic traffic jam on detour around damaged Glenn Highway bridge

Authorities said Thursday they would be rerouting Anchorage-bound Glenn Highway traffic away from downtown Eagle River and back on the highway before the Friday morning commute.

The new detour was announced Thursday evening by state officials. Commuters 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 of a ramp that crews were building Thursday evening.

"Regardless of the new detour, traffic will remain heavily congested in the area until the Glenn Highway is reopened. Please plan accordingly," police said in a Thursday afternoon statement.

At 2:30 p.m., the highway was closed at the North Eagle River exit after a vehicle collision, police said. A vehicle believed to be speeding hit the back end of another vehicle, police spokesperson MJ Thim said.

Inbound traffic was detoured at the North Birchwood exit, and a helicopter landed to medevac the injured person off the highway,  Thim didn't know the extent of the person's injuries. The area was reopened by 4 p.m.

Drivers headed into Anchorage from Eagle River and the Valley on Thursday were already enduring a slow-moving, miles-long detour around an overpass damaged Wednesday by an oversize truck.

The South Eagle River overpass was damaged by an 18-wheeler load that was too tall. Southbound traffic was diverted off the Glenn Highway at the North Eagle River exit and through downtown Eagle River to the Hiland Road interchange.

Frustrated drivers were also inundating 911 lines Thursday morning, Thim said. He asked people use that line only for life-threatening or other emergencies.

"We understand that people are frustrated. It is very challenging," he said. "We just want to stress … practice patience."

All Chugiak and Eagle River school sessions were delayed Thursday morning as buses and staff struggled to get through the gridlock, according to the Anchorage School District. The district also announced early release Thursday for schools in Chugiak and Eagle River.

Eagle River resident Shane White said he drove toward the Glenn Highway this morning, saw the standstill traffic, turned around and went home. His boss was understanding, he said.

Police officers from traffic, patrol and Eagle River units were assigned to the detour detail. They initially tried to avoid using traffic lights, Thim said, but it proved "too confusing" for drivers.

Police were also finding impatient drivers trying to cut through neighborhoods but then causing more congestion when they try to get back into detour traffic, he said. "Follow the officers' commands, follow the detours. It's just going to make things worse if you don't."

Vehicles were already backing up by 6 a.m. Thursday, according to updates from drivers posting on a Glenn Highway Facebook group.

Traffic was backed up on Eagle River Loop Road after the Glenn Highway was closed to inbound vehicles Thursday morning. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Drivers from Palmer who left home at 5:30 or 6 a.m. said they remained stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Chugiak three hours later.

Eagle River residents, meanwhile, said they were having a hard time edging their way into the stream of detour traffic and wondered how buses would get children to school on time.

"I have officially been leaving Eagle River for 45 minutes," commuter Rosanna Whittington posted on Facebook around 6:45 a.m. with a photo of vehicles backed up on a single-lane section of the detour.

"Avoid N. Eagle River Loop if you can. It is taking people 45 minutes to go one block," Stephanie Rathert posted.

Traffic was also reported backed up on the Old Glenn Highway, which runs parallel to the Glenn from Peters Creek into Eagle River.

"Old Glenn, S. Peters Creek to S. Birchwood 1 hr 10 min. hang in there," Ryan C. Gough posted.

The closure could last three to five days while state crews repair the bridge.

A modular building being carried on a flatbed trailer hit the South Eagle River overpass around 1 p.m. Wednesday. The truck, the trailer and part of the building crossed under the overpass, but the roof and part of the back of the unit were ripped off and landed on the road.

Neither the truck driver nor any drivers in vehicles behind the rig were injured.

The unit, described as an ATCO-style trailer used on job sites, was owned by William Scotsman Inc. in Anchorage. A company representative reached by phone at the scene said William Scotsman was not responsible for the transportation of the building.

The name on the truck's door identified the trucking company as Bighorn Enterprises.

"We are thankful there were no injuries," the Fairbanks-based company wrote in a Facebook message.

The load didn't require a pilot car, but it was required to have an amber beacon and oversize signage. It was also required to travel at a reduced speed and to travel only during non-peak hours, DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy wrote.

Whether the load met those requirements will be part of the state agency's investigation, McCarthy wrote. The investigation will also help determine who is liable for the repairs, according to McCarthy.

When an overweight or oversize permit is requested, the agency shares information about which bridges will or won't fit the height requirements of their load, so the person applying for the permit can plan their route, McCarthy wrote.

Alaska bridges get hit "from time to time," McCarthy wrote. The Eklutna overpass was outfitted with extra lights and warnings after it was struck multiple times.

"However, this is a significant hit," McCarthy wrote. "Bridge repairs tend to be very expensive." A recent, similar repair cost about $1 million, she wrote.

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