For the past two years in Glacier National Park, the visiting public has encountered rough roads and irksome delays on what’s typically a smooth-sailing segment of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road as it skirts the eastern shore of Lake McDonald between Apgar and Upper McDonald Creek.
And while it may appear that a single, seemingly interminable road-construction project is responsible for snarling the summertime traffic along the narrow two-lane corridor, it’s actually a series of dove-tailing projects that spanned more than two years, and which park officials say are critical to improving and replacing some of the park’s aging infrastructure.
Beginning in the summer of 2022, crews under contract with Glacier National Park and the Federal Highway Administration’s Western Federal Lands Highway Division embarked on a utility project to replace forced sewer mains, electrical and phone lines buried in the roadbed, requiring the road to be milled and excavated.
The rehabilitation work on Going-to-the-Sun Road could not be completed until that utilities work was done, officials said.
“On the heels of the utility project, we began the rehab work in spring 2023,” Glacier Park Spokesperson Gina Icenoggle said, describing the process of widening, milling and repaving 9.3 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar and the northern tip of Lake McDonald. Although that aspect of the project was the most visible to the public, it fell under the same contract as a construction project to replace the multi-span bridge over McDonald Creek with a clear-span bridge — a project that also required road closures, and which also encountered delays requiring the contract be extended to August 2024.
“Delays on the bridge work were partly due to required redesign work after due diligence in reviewing construction plans with private landowners and environmental compliance,” Icenoggle said.
However, despite those delays, the work on Going-to-the-Sun Road was still anticipated to be completed by fall of 2023 as was originally stated in the contract.
As with most late-season road construction in the northern Rockies, determining just how far crews can work into the fall is “weather permitting.”
“They are currently on the last mile-and-a-half of paving and are running into weather issues,” Icenoggle said. “We were hopeful that paving would be completed by October, but weather continued to be a factor and we are now into November. Anything that isn’t finished this fall will be forced into next spring.”
The good news is that the contractor is currently finishing up 2023 work on the new Upper McDonald Creek Bridge for the season, Icenoggle said, which will open up some recreational opportunities for the public.
“Once the construction site is buttoned up, North Lake McDonald Road and the old bridge will reopen to visitors until the yearly closure of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Lake McDonald Lodge in December,” Icenoggle said. “Visitors will be able to ski, hike and snowshoe across the old Upper McDonald Creek bridge for recreational purposes this winter.”
Construction of the new bridge will resume in 2024, at which time the road will be closed again to the public. For safety reasons, visitors should not cross the barricades closing off the ends of the new bridge or attempt to cross or climb on the new bridge, Icenoggle said.
According to Icenoggle, road construction on a busy and narrow corridor like the Sun Road is complicated, and requires contractors to get creative with their scheduling, often working through the night to avoid disrupting daytime traffic.
“This was an ambitious rehabilitation project,” Icenoggle said. “Because of the high level of visitation on Going-to-the-Sun Road, the contract obligated the project to be completed in one year which required more road to be under construction than would normally be at one time. Typically, only two to three miles of road are under construction at one time. On this project, the contractor was excavating nine miles of road all at once to finish in one summer. In addition, the project could not be done in smaller segments because it would have left utilities exposed.”
Icenoggle also said that crews encountered an unforeseen problem related to the size of the backfill needed to complete the utility project.
The utilities were originally designed to be placed in the road shoulder; however, when the contract went out for bid, the bid prices exceeded funds reserved for the project. Contractor bids were higher because of the short duration of the contract and the required winter work.
“Moving the utilities within the road prism brought the cost down substantially,” Icenoggle said. “Rebidding took time, and the detail regarding native material [the material that was originally excavated from the trench, and which needed to be reintroduced to the top 14 inches of paved surface] was overlooked in the new contract.”
This was not a mistake by the contractor, Icenoggle said, but rather an oversight in the contract. The native material included oversized material that was larger than 3 inches, while the reclamation and paving work required material to be no larger than 3 inches.
However, because the utility work was completed ahead of schedule, rehabilitation of Going-to-the-Sun Road started two months early, which allowed time to replace the native material.
“By the time paving started, the project was very close to being back on schedule,” Icenoggle said, adding that park officials have “no direct knowledge of whether the contractor fired any personnel.”
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