Wendell Bridge

Wendell Bridge is seen Monday.

The demolition process for the 70-year-old Wendell Avenue Bridge is expected to take up to two months with a new bridge in place by the middle of October.

The deck of the old bridge was in poor condition, and the low weight capacity of the bridge didn’t allow heavy trucks to drive over it, said Caitlin Frye, the Northern Region information officer for the Department of Transportation. The new bridge will accommodate heavier vehicles and will have wider sidewalks and road shoulders for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The department is demolishing the bridge piece by piece, starting with the upper part of the deck and working down from there, “basically demolishing it from the top down,” Frye said.

“In order to remove the piers, they will build a small dam around the piers to reroute the water and create a dry pocket,” she said. “Then they will start digging out the piers.”

A benefit of doing this work in the winter is that the water levels are low, and the current is not as strong as it is in the summer. “It would very difficult or impossible to build those cofferdams in the summer,” Frye explained.

The demolition is going well so far, but cold weather could delay the process because “hydraulic systems stop working when temperatures get very cold,” Frye said.

Besides, if construction workers find unexpected materials under the bridge when they tear it down, it can complicate the demolition.

“We don’t know what has happened to the materials under the water over the past 70 years,” Frye said. “If there was something driven into the river bed that got stuck under a big boulder or got twisted or caught on something else, it could be difficult to remove something like that, but we don’t want to leave materials like that in the river.”

The department staff is staying optimistic that everything will continue smoothly.

After demolishing the old bridge, the department will put down piles for the new one and start the replacing process, which is anticipated to be completed by the end of the construction season.

The old Wendell bridge was built back in 1953, “around the same time when they started paving the roads in Fairbanks,” Frye said. Repairing a bridge this old would cost as much as replacing it — or around $17 million. Frye said the project, originally planned by the state, is now 90% federally funded with a 10% match from the state.

The bridge has been closed since September, allowing workers to tear up approaches to the bridge, remove utilities and build a temporary bridge.

“The amount of work required to build this new bridge is tremendous,” Frye said. “We are working year-round to get the project done so that we don’t have to have the bridge closed for any longer.”

Besides closing the Wendell bridge for demolition and replacing, the department is also replacing the University Avenue Bridge over the Chena River. 

“If you are going around the University closure, you’ll most likely take Peger road,” she explained. “If you are taking Wendell, you’ll do Cushman Street Bridge or Steese.”

Both of the construction projects are on schedule.

“We recognize we are asking a lot of the Fairbanks community this winter: construction in winter is not what we typically do,” Frye said. “We appreciate so much their patience, this winter in particular.”

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.