A Repavement Will Have To Do Until Bethel Highway Can Be Redesigned

May 15, 2018

Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway needs more work than the state can give it right now or will be able to give it for about a decade. To overcome changing climate conditions and a growing population, the highway needs a new design, but that process will take years. So next summer, as a short-term fix, the highway will be repaved.

On Monday, the Alaska Department of Transportation held an open house at the Bethel Cultural Center to share their plan with the community. Project Manager Aaron Hughes summed it up this way: “We’re going to go through and basically try and recreate what was existing there before with the pavement, recreate that, try to bring back a pavement that’s going to last for the next five to 10 years.”

The DOT will resurface Bethel’s approximately five miles of paved roads as they currently exist along Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway from the airport to the small boat harbor, and along Ridgecrest Drive from Watson’s Corner to Akakeek Street.  However, the state knows that the roads need more than the project will allow. It will not do much of what many in the community want done, and what the DOT recognizes needs to be done.

“We’re trying to manage expectations, too, with the project,” Hughes said.

The project will not reconfigure the road to prevent frost heaves. It will not improve drainage to reduce potholes. It will not expand the roads for the projected traffic increases from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hospital expansion or the proposed Donlin Gold mine. It will not create a separate pathway for pedestrians.

When asked why, Hughes said, simply, “It takes time.”

To qualify for federal funds, planning a highway redesign takes three to five years. It requires traffic studies, environmental assessments, geological investigations, and more. And until that can be done, the DOT just wants to keep the roads drivable.

“[The] pavement had deteriorated a lot faster than we anticipated," Hughes said. "I think DOT didn’t see it coming.”

The biggest surprise came from the massive series of frost heaves that rippled the highway and made driving it resemble a carnival ride. DOT smoothed the worse heaves last fall. What they suspect happened is that the permafrost melted quicker than expected. Once the melting began, a series of problems followed. The pavement dipped down and cracked; then water entered. And when the freeze/thaw cycle started, the roads warped and fell apart.

DOT's Hughes fears that this process will continue even after the repavement. He just hopes the problem won’t get too bad before a redesign can be completed.