Alaska's longest bridge completed across Tanana River

SALCHA -- Alaska's top elected officials gathered here Tuesday to mark the completion of the longest bridge in Alaska, expressing hope that someday it will be part of a railroad connection to Canada and the Lower 48, though no money is headed down the tracks anytime soon.

For now, the $187 million bridge connects a gravel road near the Richardson Highway with the vast Tanana Flats south of the Tanana River, where there are no roads. It will be used by the Army and Air Force for year-round access to a million-acre training range.

Built to bear the load of the heaviest high-speed freight trains and to withstand the ice and water pressure of one of Alaska's great rivers, the bridge was finished on time after a three-year construction effort by dozens of companies led by Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. and the Alaska Railroad.

The bridge will be gated and not open to the public but moose hunters who secure permits from Fort Wainwright will be granted access to cross the one-lane bridge on all-terrain vehicles during the hunting season, Parnell administration officials said. Otherwise, the bridge will be limited to military truck traffic for training exercises.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon Tuesday that featured Alaska's three-member congressional delegation, Gov. Sean Parnell and others, dozens of people took a 20-minute stroll across the 3,300-foot bridge. It rained all morning in Fairbanks but not southeast of Eielson, where a couple of hundred people gathered, including local elected officials, business leaders and people intrigued by the largest construction effort of its kind that Fairbanks has seen.

The 12-foot path over the steel bridge is covered in gravel and sand, suitable for one-way travel by the likes of Army Stryker vehicles, two of which were on hand to slice a banner on the bridge. Railroad tracks would also be installed if and when the railroad is extended 13 miles to the site from Eielson Air Force Base, a project estimated to cost about $150 million.

In rough numbers, it could cost $800 million to extend the railroad to near Delta Junction. No funding source has been identified for building any railroad tracks and the railroad faces serious financial challenges but the focus Tuesday was on the bridge -- which required 12,650 tons of steel girders, 12,000 cubic yards of concrete, 9,000 truckloads of riprap and 600,000 cubic yards of embankment.

"That is a marvel that will bring benefits for Alaskans, as well as for our nation, for years to come," said Parnell. He said the bridge provides far better military access to training areas south of the river, a plus for Alaska.

Parnell said that one of the first recommendations of the group he set up more than four years ago called the Alaska Military Force Advocacy and Structure Team was that the state help pay for the bridge or it would not get built. The Legislature appropriated $84 million for the project, adding to the $104 million provided by Congress.

Several speakers stressed the notion that teamwork made the bridge a reality. Alaska Rep. Don Young said he wanted to thank the late Sen. Ted Stevens for the work he did to get the $104 million in federal funding approved.

"Projects like this work with teamwork, yes, but the funding with the military was obtained through Ted. And I want everybody to recognize the fact that when we work together we achieve things," he said.

"I'm very pleased with this bridge," Young said. "I finally got a bridge built to somewhere."

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she looks at the completed bridge as a big opportunity to build for the future and not just as a means for the military to "gain access to these unparalleled training grounds."

"It can be that next leg to how we move by rail to Canada and beyond," she said. "So let's be working not just to see what we have here today but how this carries us forward, a vision for Alaska that is big and bold, just like Ted said we would do."

Sen. Mark Begich said there was a moment when the federal funds for the project were close to lapsing because the final funding had not been arranged for years but that federal, state and local officials and communities pulled together to finish the job.

"People got busy and worked double-time to make sure this money was protected," he said. "It's a great asset for Alaska and it does move us another step for the military and our communities."

The bridge is built on pilings, 6 feet in diameter, that were pounded 130 to 140 feet into the gravel of the riverbed. Each of the 19 piers that support the bridge is built on a set of four steel pilings, filled with gravel and concrete. The pilings do not touch bedrock but provide enough strength to create a stable foundation, said Steve Adamczak, a vice president of Shannon & Wilson, one of the subcontractors on the project.

Engineer Matt Fletcher of Hanson Professional Services said the design load had to be sufficient to withstand the braking of a heavy freight train over the entire span, along with an allowance for earthquake activity, wind, and the water pressure and scouring created by a powerful glacial-fed river.