Construction report: Say goodbye to the old Chena River Bridge, and hello to a new one

The Chena River Bridge at University Ave. will be widened to include four lanes, a raised...
The Chena River Bridge at University Ave. will be widened to include four lanes, a raised center median, shoulders, and raised sidewalks on either side. (Ramzi Abou Ghalioum/KTVF) (KTVF)
Published: Jun. 22, 2020 at 3:22 PM AKDT
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This week, the Construction Report turns its focus to the Chena River Bridge on University Ave.

On Friday, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) announced that the bridge would be demolished then replaced by a newer one. However, this project will involve the closure of the current bridge between mid-July of this year and October 2021, a closure of over a year.

“This is going to be the widest bridge in Fairbanks when it’s over,” says Caitlin Frye, Northern Region Information Officer with DOT.

Frye elaborates on this point. “The sidewalks are incredibly narrow,” Frye says about the current bridge. “There’s no shoulders on the road. It is an uncomfortable experience as a pedestrian or a cyclist.”

The new bridge will include four lanes, a raised center median, shoulders, and raised sidewalks on either side.

Additionally, she says, there are structural reasons for building a new bridge. “The bridge is 57 years old,” Frye says. “And it’s lived out its useful life.”

The reason for the long closure, Frye says, has to do with the obstacles involved with demolishing and replacing the current bridge, as well as other circumstances incidental to the positioning of the bridge.

“The road is initially going to close because we are going to be working that leg of the Airport Way/University Ave. intersection,” she says. This is part of an ongoing multi-year project to widen University Ave. Frye mentions that it does not make sense to widen University Ave. if the road bottlenecks at the bridge.

While those improvements are being made to University Ave., in mid-July, demolition crews are going to begin the process of taking apart the current bridge.

“We have to demolish the bridge when the water levels are low and when there’s no ice in the river, and those conditions only really exist in the fall, and so we have to start demolishing the bridge in the fall,” Frye explains.

The reason that water levels have to be low, Frye says, is because divers need to be hired to saw away the concrete from the piers under the Chena River. “We have to remove the concrete piece by piece in order to not just totally pollute the Chena River with a bunch of broken up concrete,” Frye says.

“This work is too dangerous to do at any other time of year,” Frye adds.

“It also just takes a really long time to build a bridge like this,” Frye says, adding that utilities will be run underneath the river, and through the bridge itself.

There will be a temporary bridge, however, it will be accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists. This is because the area is what Frye refers to as a “tight urban corridor.” She says that there is not enough room between the private property on one side, and the state park on the other for a temporary road that would accommodate vehicles.

Additionally, building the bridge in segments in order to keep it open, Frye says, would have dramatically increased the cost of the project, 90% of which is being funded by the federal government, and the rest by the state.

Businesses in the area will remain accessible throughout the project’s construction.

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