Work Continues on Glacier’s Sun Road

By JUSTIN FRANZ for the Flathead Beacon

Construction crews are back at work on Glacier National Park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road and officials hope to finish the massive $150 to $170 million project by early 2017. National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration officials were in Kalispell on May 15 to give an update to Sun Road’s progress.

This year, crews will be working on a three-and-a-half mile stretch of road between Avalanche Creek and Logan Pit on the west side and a nine-mile stretch of road between Siyeh Bend and Rising Sun on the east side.

Glacier National Park landscape architect Jack Gordon did voice concerns over whether there would be enough money to finish the entire project, specifically the repaving of a 16-mile stretch of road between West Glacier and Avalanche Creek.

“It doesn’t look really rosy for that Lake McDonald segment,” Gordon said.

Traffic waits for road construction on the Going-to-the-Sun Road on Tuesday afternoon, as a massive cloud bank obscures part of the mountains. - Justin Franz/Flathead Beacon

Traffic waits for road construction on the Going-to-the-Sun Road on Tuesday afternoon, as a massive cloud bank obscures part of the mountains. – Justin Franz/Flathead Beacon

Officials say when it’s completed, the entire road project will have cost between $150 and $170 million. Since it started in 2007, it has cost $130 million. It has included a gamut of improvements to the road, including repaving, slope stabilization, retaining wall restoration and guardrail instillation.

Federal Highway Administration resident engineer Mike Baron said the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a complicated highway project because of its alpine location and constantly changing weather. There are 70 different avalanche chutes along the road.

“Rock fall has been an issue along the road since it was first constructed,” Baron said.

Last summer, 500 cubic yards of dirt and rock came down on the road at Big Bend after more than an inch and a half of rain fell in the area in less then 30 minutes. Two visitors were injured during the incident and the road was closed for two days.

Interestingly, the massive mudslide at Big Bend worked in construction crews’ favor, according to Gordon. Workers were able to extend the slope at Big Bend to add additional parking and space for visitors.

“We’ve made it into a place for people to go, rather than a place to just walk around the car,” he said.

Gordon said contractors have worked hard to maintain the road’s historic character and in some cases have even shipped in material to recreate the classic stone retaining walls. In the 1930s, workers would just use local rock to build the walls so that it would blend into the scenery. These days, the Park Service wouldn’t allow road crews to blast and mine for rock inside the park, so they’ve gone elsewhere to find similar stones. In one instance, they found some near Libby.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this because it’s a National Historic Landmark and an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and we want to keep that historic integrity,” Gordon said.

This year, the Going-to-the-Sun Road could open as early as June 21, but park spokesperson Denise Germann said it all depends on the weather. The east side of the road will close on Sept. 23, however access to Logan Pass will still be available until Oct. 20. After that, the alpine section of the road will be closed. For more information about the road, visit www.nps.gov/glac.

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