SALCHA — Mark Peterburs has worked on some substantial projects before, but never anything quite like the Tanana River Northern Rail Extension. 

When the Alaska Railroad’s project director for the expansion discusses the job, he can’t help but talk big. A constant stream of dump trucks have delivered 410,000 tons of fill material to the site. The newly built bridge spans 3,300 feet over the murky waters of the Tanana River, with its 19 piers requiring 12,000 yards of concrete. 

When it’s officially unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 5, the bridge will immediately become the longest in Alaska. The project spans the murky brown waters of the Tanana River in Salcha to provide access between existing rail lines and military land to the south.

“It’s a pretty substantial design, but it’s a pretty substantial river,” Peterburs said as he surveyed the site earlier this month in a pickup.

As the project nears an end, Peterburs said it’s been both wildly complex and deeply satisfying. It was massive enough to alter the flow of the Tanana and require levies on each side of the river. It required numerous environmental permits, funding from both state and federal sources, and cooperation between nearly 20 contractors.

It was deemed 94 percent complete last week, with most of the remaining work consisting of hauling old materials from the construction site. Piles of timbers, used steel beams and enormous piles of gravel fill the yard, the last remnants of a year-round project that’s consumed the past three years.

Peterburs said the project will come in below its $156 million budget, although he isn’t quite ready to announce a final price tag.

“I’m feeling a little sad that it’s coming to an end,” he said. “Mostly probably because it’s been pretty successful — if it was a disaster, I’d probably be happy to put it behind me.”

A link to Southeast

The Northern Rail Extension is the lynchpin to an ambitious four-phase project to connect military training grounds near Delta Junction to the Fairbanks area by rail. Funding for the project included $104 million from the Department of Defense, along with $84 million from the state, which paid for construction, environmental studies and design.

Work on the bridge began in August 2011, when trucks began moving rock to the site from Browns Hill Quarry. 

Since then, Peterburs admits, just about everything he could have hoped for has gone right. The shifting channels of the Tanana behaved as predicted, and no archaeological material was discovered during excavation that could have delayed or unraveled the project. 

He said he’s most proud of the unorthodox process used to build the bridge. Rather than designing a project and sending it out for bid, the Alaska Railroad selected a general contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure West, to work alongside throughout design and construction.

Peterburs credited the process for creating a surprisingly harmonious project. It’s rare for such a massive undertaking to proceed without change orders or new claims, but he said the collaboration kept them to a minimum.

“It takes away a lot of the mystery,” he said. “We were all in the same building for 6 months. We’re all buddies — that doesn’t happen very often.”

An uncertain future

The future, however, remains hazy for the rest of the project. 

It was conceived as a way to provide access to the the Joint Pacific Area Range Complex, located 80 miles to the southeast. The training area is currently available only during winter, when ice roads can be constructed to the grounds.

But the road currently comes to a halt just beyond the bridge, ending abruptly in a stand of thick spruce trees. There isn’t any funding to continue the road, or even to lay rails across the bridge.

The next phase would build about 13 miles of railroad track, with subsequent phases extending the rail to training ranges near Fort Greely. In an email, Alaska Railroad spokeswoman Stephenie Wheeler said that funding hasn’t been lined up for phase two. 

It’s expected to cost between $100 million and $150 million, a hefty bill in today’s spending environment.

“Obtaining funding is a challenge due to the ongoing federal sequester and state budget issues,” Wheeler stated, adding that the railroad is “hopeful” that funds will be appropriated. 

It’s also unclear how or whether civilians will be able to use the bridge. Hunters, in particular, have sought access to previously hard-to-reach areas on the south side of the Tanana River.

McHugh Pierre, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the state would like to provide that access. The details, however, will need to be agreeable to both the military and Alaska Railroad. He hopes details can be worked out by the time the bridge is formally unveiled in August.

“We have agreed in concept, but we’re far from a final answer,” he said.

Peterburs doesn’t play a role in pushing for project funding, but believes the bridge should provide state and federal lawmakers with reasons to believe the rest of the project is worthwhile.

“We’d like to say we delivered a project on time and on budget,” Peterburs said. “We hope that says something.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter:


By the numbers

  » 3,300 feet long

  » 23 million pounds of steel

  » 9,000 truckloads of rip-rap

  » 600,000 cubic yards of embankment fill

  » 12,000 cubic yards of concrete