Glacier celebrates the end of major Going-to-the-Sun Road contract

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Crews drill bolts into the side of the cliffs above the Going-to-the-Sun Road to stabilize it in October, 2007.

In a sometimes emotional ceremony, Glacier National Park recognized the completion of the long term contract to reconstruct the Going-to-the-Sun Road last week.

“We’ve created a legacy for the next 100 years,” superintendent Jeff Mow said. He said the $170 million rehabilitation of the road, which formally began in 2007, relied on a host of partnerships, including support from Montana’s Congressional delegation, dedicated Park Service staff, the federal Highway Administration, the park’s gateway community members and HK Construction of Idaho, who was the general contractor on the project.

Mow likened it to a “three ring circus” making the logistics come together.

But they did come together surprisingly well and the road is better and safer because of it.

The beginning was a little bit rough, however. In the late 1990s, the Park Service originally proposed closing the road for two years on either side of the divide while crews rebuilt the road. But local businesses said that was untenable — the road brought in at least $1 million a day to gateway communities when it was fully open and with the road closed, they’d face going bankrupt.

Republican Congressman Rick Hill was able to secure $1 million toward looking at alternatives. That included setting up an advisory committee of locals to steer the reconstruction project. They convened in 2001 and went to work, coming up with a “shared use” plan that allowed crews to work on the road during the shoulder season and at night, but to manage two-way traffic up and down the highway on both sides of the Divide during the peak summer months.

It worked, but it was a challenge, noted project manager Don Herne of HK Construction.

“We’d be lucky to get 10-15 minutes of production per hour,” he recalled.

The HK contract was not without its initial controversies. Prior to the start of the main contract, several Montana firms had been awarded several smaller contracts to do work on the highway.

But when the federal Highway Administration announced HK had received the long-term contract, Montana contractors fumed. It turned out that they hadn’t qualified to bid on the job under the federal rules.

Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus was not happy.

Baucus secured the first $50 million for the project in the 2005 federal highways bill. But even that turned into a sticky wicket. The highway administration noted that the funding language had authorized the cash, but not actually appropriated it.

Baucus, who was chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, eventually clarified the funding in another bill, and the project was off and running. The work done in the summer of 2007 immediately had a big challenge.

In 2006, a massive flood hit the park in November after a rain of more than 9 inches landed on top of a growing snowpack.

The road near the east side tunnel washed out for hundreds of feet and a temporary bridge had to be installed the follwing spring just to get the road reopened. Today, one would never know it had ever been there.

In addition, several other areas saw flooding damage and the foot bridge at Sacred Dancing Cascade was completely destroyed.

Overall, however, the shared use plan actually went pretty well with motorists. If one was going to be stuck in a traffic jam, there was no better place to do it than on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Folks simply got out of their cars and started taking pictures. If they were lucky, a mountain goat or bighorn sheep wandered by.

It was predicted that visitation would go down — it didn’t. It went up and up, from about 1.8 million visitors in 2008 to the nearly 3 million the park sees today.

Herne recalled the first time he toured the road in 2007 to look at the project.

“Wow,” he said. “This is a huge project. What did I get myself into?”

It was a huge undertaking. All told, 43 subcontractors worked on the job, including 20 from Montana. One in particular made the newspapers regularly — Anderson Masonry did the bulk of the stonework on the highway and their crews were often featured in photos and stories.

HK, meanwhile, did the work that no one noticed — fixing the very underbelly of the highway with thousands of yards of grout; drilling 40-foot long bolts into the rock above the rock to stabilize it, that sort of thing.

While the main contract is over, work will continue on the road. There’s more projects to repair masonry and other work next summer — places were the stone walls have been blasted down the hillside by avalanches. And there’s another big project on the horizon as well. The Many Glacier Road is in desperate need of repair. A contract to rebuild that road could come in 2020.

There’s also unfinished business on the ecological front.

During the ceremony, Mow left a seat of the stage empty. He said it represented the American bison. Bison once roamed freely in Glacier long before it was a park. Their remains have even been found in high elevations, locked in sheets of ice that are slowly melting.

The Park Service is working with the Blackfeet Tribe through a project called the Innii Initiative to eventually return bison back to Glacier.

“Our dream and goal is to eventually have them free roaming like in Yellowstone National Park,” he said.

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