A Bridge Through Time: Eklutna River Bridge Replacement

by Van Le, AICP

The Eklutna River Bridge was built in 1935 as a one-lane, two-truss steel spandrel arch bridge to connect Anchorage to the agricultural Matanuska Valley. In 1941-42, the Anchorage-Matanuska Road was incorporated into the Glenn Highway, providing an alternative route from the Port of Valdez to Fort Richardson. In 2010, R&M performed an inspection of the bridge, documenting deficiencies and ultimately recommending the bridge be replaced due to widespread deterioration and cracks in the welds and truss members, missing connections, member damage and section loss, rust, pack rust and paint failure. As a result of this inspection, the Eklutna River Bridge was closed to vehicle traffic in May 2012.

The Eklutna River Bridge at Old Glenn Highway is a Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) transportation implementation project that is an example of multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency cooperation and partnership between the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA), Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF), Alaska Department of Natural Resources (ADNR) Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation (DPOR) and the Native Village of Eklutna (NVE). This purpose of this road and bridge engineering project was to restore connectivity to a rural neighborhood and to one of the most popular day use areas for hiking within Chugach State Park. The existing bridge’s eligibility to be listed with the National Registry of Historic Places required special permitting, consultation and environmental mitigation measures. More importantly, the bridge and surrounding area are of cultural significance to the NVE. The NVE was an integral part of the historic mitigation interpretive panels documenting the value of the bridge and the Eklutna River through the words of the Dena’ina People. The project is also an example of collaborative effort between a multi-discipline team of surface transportation and bridge design engineers, planners, environmental specialists, cultural resource specialists, archaeologists, interpretive design specialists and landscape architects to implement a project within a two-year timeframe. Led by Project Manager Lance DeBernardi, PE, R&M was the prime consultant for the design, planning and environmental services effort on this project to replace the Eklutna River Bridge.Bridge_sm

In addition to typical public involvement efforts for CSS reconstruction projects, special coordination with ADNR-DPOR, NVE and Eklutna, Inc. were maintained throughout the design phase of the project to understand and pursue common design goals. The proposed revisions to the trailhead parking area, including an interpretive solution at the trailhead, a separated pedestrian pathway, four-foot shoulders for improved safety, and modern crash-worthy guardrail and bridge rail to replace outdated bridge elements, are a result of this cooperative effort.

Mitigation for the removal of the historic bridge structure was negotiated between the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), MOA and the NVE, along with other consulting parties to the historic preservation process, including the Alaska Historic Preservation Commission, the Chugiak-Eagle River Historical Society, ADNR-DPOR and Eklutna, Inc. A Memorandum of Agreement among these parties was finalized and signed in May 2014 and set forth the agreed upon mitigation, including:

  • Archaeological and Cultural Resources Survey in Coordination with the NVE with field work completed in May 2014 and the final report distributed in August 2014.
  • Interpretive Display developed by Stakeholder Working Group. Representatives of signatories to the historic Memorandum of Agreement met multiple times over the summer of 2014 to collaborate on developing a three-panel interpretive display to be installed near the Thunderbird Falls parking area and trailhead. These meetings included representatives from NVE (Cultural Resources Director Maria Coleman), Bettisworth North Architects and Planners (landscape architect Jonny Hayes) and ADNR-DPOR (interpretive professional Emily Lochhart). The result was a custom-designed three-panel interpretive display covering the historic bridge, NVE culture, the river, and regional place names and history. For example, the Dena’ina Placenames Panel provides a history and context for the naming of Eklutna River as Idluytnu, meaning “(plural) objects river”. The interpretive display is part of the work package bid with the bridge replacement project, and will be constructed with State grant funding.Denaina-Placenames_sm
  • Architectural documentation of the Historic Bridge and Archival of Historical Blueprints. Richard Stern, PhD of Northern Land Use Research Alaska was the architectural historian on R&M’s project team. Dr. Stern completed photo documentation of the bridge and compiled a historic narrative and archival copies of existing blueprints and related materials. All documentation and the photo record has been archived for public use at the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS).

Bridge and road construction is currently underway with anticipated completion in summer 2016. The project website (www.EklutnaRiverBridgeReplacement.com) is documenting construction activities through a live camera.

The R&M project team – including Project Manager Lance DeBernardi, PE, Lead Planner Van Le, AICP and Environmental Lead Kristi McLean, LEED AP BD+C, along with team members from Bettisworth North and NLURA – will present our work on the Eklutna River Bridge Replacement project at the Annual State Planning Conference (November 16-17) at the Anchorage Marriott.


Van Le, AICP is the Group Manager of Planning Services at R&M. She joined the firm in January 2013. Van specializes in multi-modal transportation, land use compatibility and community development. Her experience includes regional planning and MPO long-range transportation plans, CSS implementation, area-specific master plans, and implementation of TIP and STIP priorities. As a former MOA and AMATS planner with 12 years of experience, Van offers a background in private sector consulting and the public sector. She holds a M.S. in Environmental Sciences from Alaska Pacific University and a B.A. in Urban Geography from the University of British Columbia. Van is a certified planner through the American Institute of Certified Planners.