Problems with detour maintenance cause long traffic delays in Glenn Highway construction zone

Motorists have experienced sometimes hours-long delays in the southbound lanes of the Glenn Highway in recent weeks due to construction at the Mirror Lake exit, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said.

The department is working with the contractor to mitigate delays, spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said, and she expects traffic flow to improve as the project continues.

“We recognize that’s not acceptable, that we can’t have that when people are trying to get to their jobs, to school, to medical appointments,” she said.

Construction at the Mirror Lake exit began in the spring and is scheduled to continue until October, McCarthy said. The project will create permanent repairs to damage caused by the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2018, she said. The work should also prevent the road from failing if another strong earthquake hits, she said.

[Post-earthquake road repairs are almost complete - but they’re only temporary]

The $6.9 million project is mostly federally funded, with less than a 10% match coming from the state, McCarthy said.

One of the two inbound lanes is closed at 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday so crews can work overnight, McCarthy said. The lane is reopened at 4:30 a.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. Friday and Saturday, she said. The Mirror Lake exit is closed.

Lately, traffic has begun to back up for miles near the construction zone because three poorly maintained gravel patches deteriorated to the point where they were “not traversable at highway speeds,” McCarthy said.

“So people were having to slow down, and when you have people really slowing down on the Glenn Highway, they just create a really long queue, and then when there’s a single lane closed, then it’s really hard to clear that backup,” she said.

Much of the deterioration was due to continued rainfall, McCarthy said, and the contractors had not maintained it “to a level that the public and DOT expects.” The rain also postponed paving over the patches, which were just south of the on- and off-ramps and near the Paradis Lane overpass, McCarthy said.

A project manager from HC Contracting was not available to comment before the publication of this story.

Crews smoothed the gravel and finished paving the final patch Thursday morning, McCarthy said, but the work stretched into time when the road should have been fully opened — again causing significant delays.

There have been several other morning delays caused by a delayed lane reopening, McCarthy said.

Equipment failure one morning forced workers to keep the second lane closed until a piece of heavy machinery could be removed from the roadway, McCarthy said. Another morning, the crews were still completing work on gravel patches, she said.

“If those traffic control devices are left up past like 6 a.m., it will cause delays, even if you pull the traffic devices by 6:15 or 6:30 — the highway just can’t clear that level of traffic,” she said. “And that’s why sometimes when you’re driving there will be a huge slowdown ... and then you’ll get through an area going at very, very slow speeds and all of a sudden it’ll clear up and you never saw anything, and that’s why — it’s that residual congestion that a highway will experience.”

For Steve Kruse of Eagle River, the delays put a damper on time spent with family members visiting from Outside. He said he recently spent more than an hour in traffic with his brother and mother-in-law as they drove from Palmer back to Eagle River.

On Sunday and Monday, Kruse said, there were similar delays. And on Tuesday, his family decided not to travel because they didn’t want to risk getting stuck in traffic again, he said.

And it’s a good thing he didn’t go out, he said, because a collision closed the highway for more than two hours near the construction site.

A Chevy Silverado pickup rear-ended a Chrysler sedan that was stopped for construction traffic just south of the Eklutna overpass, an Anchorage police spokeswoman said. The Chrysler subsequently hit a Toyota minivan that was stopped in front of it, police said in a statement.

One person was airlifted from the scene with serious injuries, and two others were brought to a hospital, police said.

Another crash early Sunday was not related to the construction but did temporarily close the southbound lanes near the Eklutna exit. A northbound vehicle rolled and eventually came to rest in the southbound lanes, said Renee Oistad, a spokeswoman for the police. There were no injuries.

McCarthy said she was not aware of any other collisions near the construction site, and police did not immediately provide information on whether there have been other recent collisions in the area.

McCarthy said she believes there have been significant improvements this week in the traffic situation. Active work on the highway will be paused during the Alaska State Fair, which opens Friday and draws big crowds from Anchorage.

“The delays this summer have been very unfortunate and we are working with the contractor to remediate those and to prevent those from happening in the future,” she said.