PALMER — As the summer heat gives way to rain showers that will likely continue through the Alaska State Fair, the crews constructing the new Glenn Highway in Palmer are reaching their fever pitch.
The $36.6 million phase 1 of construction for the Glenn Highway from miles 34 to 42 are full speed ahead according to DOT Spokesperson Shannon McCarthy. With new pavement on much of the stretch of road under construction, crews will keep up the pace until the start of the Alaska State Fair, the worst Valley traffic has to offer every year.
“The whole idea is to make sure that anything we do is offline so that it’s not interfering with traffic,” said McCarthy.
Glenn Highway widening Project Engineer Todd Smith said that the entire project is about 35 percent complete at the end of July. Construction on the massive reconstruction project began in the fall of 2018 with utility relocation and has seen closures, detours, and shiny new pavement in Palmer when the construction season began. The completion date is still set for the summer of 2020, but crews are making good time ahead of their schedule change for the Alaska State Fair.
Smith and Department of Transportation Management have been in near constant contact with the Alaska State Fair, hoping not to cause any extra delays to motorists already dealing with fair time congestion. The traditional entrance to the fairgrounds on the Glenn Highway near the green and purple gates will still be utilized this year. Smith said that he will sit down with the subcontracted traffic control for the fair and go over details next week. Construction during the fair could go one of two ways depending on next week’s meeting. Smith hopes to find times and places that will not interfere with fair traffic to continue working during the two weeks of the heaviest traffic in the Valley. However, Smith said that in the contract signed prior to the beginning of work, they reserve the right to halt work altogether if necessary.
In Tuesday’s Palmer City Council Meeting, City Manager Nathan Wallace provided sales tax projections during his report. For the month of June alone, Palmer collected $3,000 more in sales tax than it had projected. For the year to date, the city is $60,000 over projected sales tax revenues.
“Even with the construction we’re still seeing folks are spending money in Palmer,” said Wallace.
Smith said that the highlight of the project so far may very well be the public patience with construction crews. Smith thanked the community of Palmer for their tolerance to crews working in the roadway. This being Smith’s first project in the city of Palmer, he commended the city and and Mat-Su Borough management for their understanding and communication throughout the summer.
“We are really dedicated to making sure that businesses are still accessible and that the public knows where they can get to them,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy said that maintaining access has been a priority for construction crews. Smith hopes to have the first layer of pavement down and all of the new traffic signals operational before termination dust makes its way down the mountains and into the Valley, halting construction work for the winter. While DOT has made every effort to keep motorists moving, they are realistic that this may be the most frustrating time for travelers of the Glenn Highway.
“We’re really at the height of inconvenience for the public,” said McCarthy.
The next layer of pavement is set to be laid down in late August, finishing the layer that has already been paved on much of the west side of the Glenn Highway. Similar to the process crews used in the paving projects in the downtown area, Smith said that the next big move for traffic will be over to the west lanes as crews begin work on the east lanes on the Glenn from Commercial Drive to Outer Springer Loop. Traffic data from last year showed over 20,000 cars on that stretch of the Glenn Highway daily, well over the 12,000 cars per day capacity.
“All of the work that we’re doing in downtown is the most challenging for us to be able to keep construction moving while also moving traffic,” said Smith.
Additionally, a separate set of construction crews have eased the process of getting into Palmer. When the magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck on Nov. 30, 2018, the Palmer exit off of the Glenn Highway was severely damaged. The hill sloughed off on either side, causing dramatic slides on the north side of the ramp and establishing a crack in the pavement hundreds of feet long inside the guardrail. The exit had been contained to one lane since last winter, and DOT was able to repair the on-ramp in less than two weeks. McCarthy was pleased with how quickly the project went and said that because the exit is built on saturated soil that rests on wetlands, it would have been a difficult area to excavate and replace. DOT was able to remove faulty materials and compress the exit with geotechnical type of wrapping, solidifying the soil and securing the exit.