KALISPELL — The sprawling, multiyear rehabilitation project on the Going-to-the-Sun Road continues this summer in Glacier National Park and, with the lion’s share of the work behind them, park officials are anticipating a completion date in early 2017.
At a community meeting Wednesday in Kalispell, Jack Gordon, Glacier Park’s landscape architect and project manager for design and construction, and Mike Baron, the resident engineer for federal highways in the park, described the progress of the extensive road rehabilitation project, the final price tag of which is estimated to fall between $150 and $170 million. To date, $130 million in federal money has been spent on the repairs, and the final cost will match early predictions that, at times, seemed unrealistic, Gordon said.
“I remember thinking at one point that we couldn’t get it done,” he said. “We were questioning whether we were even going to get the alpine section with the pot of money we had. We feel pretty lucky.“
Still, an additional $20 million to $40 million in funding is needed to complete the project, most of which would be used to repave a 16 1/2-mile section of the road between the West Glacier entrance and Avalanche Creek.
This summer’s construction will focus on a 3 1/2-mile section of highway between Avalanche Creek and Logan Pit on the west side and a nine-mile stretch between Siyeh Bend and Rising Sun on the east side. There also will be construction in the St. Mary area.
Last summer, crews completed a challenging alpine section of the road between Haystack Creek and Big Bend, encountering avalanche hazards and a major rock slide, which severed the road and required the excavation of 500 cubic yards of debris during the brief construction season, which falls between mid-June and mid-October.
“We crossed a major hurdle this year,” Gordon said. “We’ve completed most of the alpine segment.“
Construction work on the narrow, winding, precipitous 50-mile Sun Road corridor comes with a unique set of challenges, and much of the equipment and techniques used for the project are designed specifically for the unrivaled engineering feat.
“It is just a really unique project with really unique constraints,” Baron said.
In 2007, HK Contractors was awarded the contract to run from June 2007 to June 2009, followed by four additional two-year option periods.
As Gordon points out, maintaining the Sun Road is a Sisyphean labor that is never complete, and which, given the harsh weather conditions the road endures, requires constant repairs.
Other challenges include rock fall, avalanches, cold and wet weather, the condensed construction season and maintaining the road’s historic integrity. The stone masonry is regularly bombarded by rock fall, avalanche debris and vehicle collisions, and repairing the crumbling stone work is a time-consuming endeavor.
“We put a lot of energy into the stone masonry because it’s a National Historic Landmark,” Gordon said. “We have worked to maintain that historic integrity.“
It’s also expensive work. Because crews can’t quarry within the park’s boundaries, they cut the rock from stone sources outside the park. At one point, stone was cut from the Fisher River near Libby, trucked to Portland, Ore. for shaping, and then shipped back to Glacier Park.
“That was probably the most extensive effort to date,” he said.
To stabilize the road, crews also have installed 6,000 feet of concrete columns, while approximately 5,900 feet of bolts reduces rock fall. Because of the high number of major avalanche chutes, workers have installed 5,800 feet of removable guardrail, while more than one mile of culvert pipe has improved drainage.
Some 24,000 cubic yards of material was excavated, amounting to more than 2,000 truck loads.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road Rehabilitation Project is a more concentrated push, Gordon said, but piecemeal work has been occurring since the road’s completion in 1932, and especially in recent decades.
“Really, we’ve been rehabilitating the road since 1989,” Gordon said. “And the work is never finished, even after this project is done.“
The road is currently open between West Glacier and Lake McDonald Lodge and between St. Mary and Rising Sun. Hiking and biking access is another popular option for recreation.
The earliest the road can open to Logan Pass is June 21. The last day to access Logan Pass from West Glacier is Oct. 20. The last day to access the pass from the east side is Sept. 23.
Plow crews have reached Siyeh Bend on the east side and Triple Arches on the west side, but work has slowed recently due to avalanches.