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Culvert washout prompts Tundra Ridge Road closure

A washed-out culvert on Tundra Ridge Road (informally known as Polk Road) in Bethel is seen on April 29, 2024.
Dean Swope
A washed-out culvert on Tundra Ridge Road (informally known as Polk Road) in Bethel is seen on April 29, 2024.

In response to a washed-out culvert, the City of Bethel and state transportation officials urge travelers to steer clear of Tundra Ridge Road, informally known as Polk Road, until construction of a new gravel road is completed, likely around the end of summer.

On Monday (April 29), pooling meltwater had eroded the soil around a culvert passing under Tundra Ridge Road just south of Ptarmigan St., making the road almost completely impassable.

The following day, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTP&F) directed the contractor for the project, Knik Construction, to place signs blocking the road as a safety measure.

Tundra Ridge Road had been the source of a decades-long dispute between the state, city, and the Polk family, which owns a Native allotment that the road passes through. Over the years, the road has repeatedly fallen into disrepair.

In 2008, it was reportedly blocked off by the Polk family to keep the public out. But plenty of vehicles have plied the dirt road, looking to shave around 4 miles off the trip from the Tundra Ridge neighborhood to the airport, all while technically trespassing.

Now, with the recent culvert washout and rehabilitation project construction set to begin, the shortcut is off the table at least until September.

“I know it's very hard for those people that live over there at the end of Ptarmigan, because now they’ve got to drive all the way down to Ridgecrest and then come all the way back if they want to go to the airport,” said Ron Searcy, a state project manager with DOTP&F overseeing the road rehabilitation project.

The washed-out culvert is one of a handful that will be replaced or added this summer by Knik Construction. By the end of September, the contractor also plans to complete a new gravel road over top of the notoriously rough 1-mile Tundra Ridge route.

Searcy said the road will consist of multiple layers of imported materials and a stabilization fabric to grapple with Bethel’s sandy, unstable soil.

“I think what's really going to make this road a whole lot better in the future is that it will be able to be bladed and maintained, so that it doesn't get in anywhere near the condition that it's in right now,” Searcy said.

The state didn’t get the green light for the rehabilitation project until 2021. That year, a federal judge ruled that DOTP&F could take control of the portion of the road passing through the Polk’s property through eminent domain, provided they compensate the family according to the fair market value.

Searcy said he is optimistic that the road will remain viable for years to come and will likely reduce traffic on the Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway. It will also give emergency responders more than one point of access to Tundra Ridge.

After the project is completed, the state will hand over control of Tundra Ridge Road to the City of Bethel.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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