Work Speeds Ahead on Replacing Century-Old Bridges With Tunnel

Volvo Tackles Challenges in Final Frontier of Alaska

Tue April 17, 2007 - West Edition
Brian O’ Sullivan



If America is the land where everything is Big — then Alaska is surely the land where everything is vast. Now the 49th state of the United States, it was bought from the Russians for two cents an acre in 1867; is twice the size of Texas and, if laid on top of mainland USA, would stretch from New York on the east coast to San Francisco on the west. Alaska’s very name comes from the Eskimo word for ’great lands.’ And not only is it vast, it is also largely unspoilt; with the Tongass National Forest being the largest in the United States.

On the edge of the forest is Annette Island, a 12-mi. long idyll that is leased from the U.S. Government and is home to the Tsimshian tribe of Native Americans.

While the island is full of Hemlock, Spruce, Red Cedar, deer, black bears and salmon, its isolation has meant that getting around it is a problem for its 1,200 inhabitants. With high unemployment in the island’s main town of Metlakatla, job seekers traveling to the city of Ketchikan on the bigger and more prosperous Revillagigedo Island have to fly in a six seater DeHaviland Beaver. This is expensive and inefficient as only hand luggage is allowed and any supplies bought have to be shipped back separately to Matlakatla.

What the community needs is a road that allows easy access from Matlakatla to the Ketchikan ferry, which takes just 15 minutes to make the crossing. Just such a road is being built, albeit slowly.

Roads through difficult terrain don’t come cheap and the local community can ill afford to finance one. But a compromise has been reached whereby a joint team from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force are constructing the road as a training program; teaching their regular and reservist personnel techniques in road, drainage and bridge building — as well as how to operate construction equipment.

A Marathon in Every Sense

The program is set to run for 10 years, which may seem excessive for a road that is only 16.4 yds. (15 m) wide, 26 mi. (41.8 km) long and made of rock that has been drilled, blasted, crushed, spread and compacted rather than paved, but the project’s length is mainly due to the severity of the climate, which restricts construction to only four months of the year.

The weather in Alaska can vary from 100F (38C) to 79.6F (minus 62C), and despite its position in the far north, Annette Island qualifies as a rainforest; with more than 18 ft. of rain falling each year. This, combined with the need to create a high quality road and blast through solid granite as high as 164 yds. (150 m), contributes to the project’s duration.

The unpaved nature of the road is not unusual in Alaska; the gravel will be super-compacted to prevent pot holing during the rainy season and it is more sympathetic in such an environmentally sensitive and beautiful area.

Local Volvo dealer CMI is supplying 29 machines for the project on a five-year rental basis. Excavators (EC290B, EC360B and EC460B), G780B graders and nine new and used A30 haulers are all at work at the site. Specified by the client by model number in the tender documents, the Volvo brand has a good track record in these demanding conditions, according to the manufacturer. That said, each machine’s use by as many as 16 operators a year (many of them inexperienced) places an additional maintenance burden on the machines; providing what one might consider a renter’s dilemma and a mechanic’s nightmare.

“There is certainly plenty of wear and tear,” Chris Gerondale, CMI’s general manager of the region, said. “Inexperience people make mistakes, and parts break and don’t last as long; operators shift gear incorrectly and things go wrong. But that’s how people learn and this, after all, is the main point of the exercise. That said, these rocky abrasive conditions would be tough on machines anyway, with extreme wear to buckets, tracks, undercarriages and tires expected.”

One of the main reasons for the success of the Volvo equipment has been the product support offered by CMI. In such a remote area, having the ability to get machines up and running as quickly as possible is vital.

In addition to having technicians permanently on site, the company has also trained the military, who in turn train the recruits on good practice and machine maintenance. CMI also has invested heavily in its parts and support business.

“When a machine breaks down we are more likely to have the part on the shelf than we did five years ago,” Gerondale said. “And for this project we have even shipped a sea container full of parts to the site for even faster repairs.”

When the short work season is over, CMI ships the battered machines 250 mi. to the port of Juneau and begins the job of bringing them back up to Volvo standard.

“Last year we had three technicians working full time on them for three months solid,” Gerondale joked. With lots of maintenance, a short rental period leading to low utilization and competitive rates, making money on machine rental is no easy task.

“But we knew this when we came into the project,” Gerondale said. “We may not actually make a profit until we dispose of the equipment. But the Volvos can take a battering and be repaired to a good condition — which in turn leads to good residual values. And at least we sell plenty of parts.”

While it may have been hard on the machines that made it, thousands of people will have learned how to build roads and use modern machinery. When finished, the residents of Metlakatla will be able to jump in their cars and be in Ketchikan in under an hour, bringing not only their purchases back with them but also an improvement to the social and economic prosperity of little Annette Island.

(This story is reprinted courtesy of “Volvo Spirit: Volvo Construction Equipment” magazine and originally appeared in publication’s Nov. 2006 issue)