Glacier View car launch faces uncertain future due to ongoing riverbank erosion

The news comes as road construction crews make emergency fixes to sections of the Glenn Highway threatened by the river this week.

Glacier View car launch faces uncertain future due to ongoing riverbank erosion
A car launches during the 2021 Glacier View July 4 celebration. (Car Launch-4/Adam_Gulkis under CC license 2.0)
  • This might be the final year for an annual July 4 car launch in Glacier View due to significant, long-term riverbank erosion eating away a spectator gathering area along the Matansuka River, organizers said.  
  • The swollen river has also triggered emergency construction to protect the Glenn Highway. Work in a section just north of Sutton near Mile 63 will continue over the month, with construction planned soon for a separate section at Mile 72.
  • The construction could trigger lane closures and delays as crews work to shore up the bank and put 25 to 30 feet between the water and the highway, officials said.

SUTTON – Organizers of the annual July 4 car launch in Glacier View said the long-term loss of riverbank caused by the ever-moving Matanuska River could mean this will be the final year for the popular event. Meanwhile, emergency construction to protect the Glenn Highway north of Sutton from recent erosion caused by the swollen river will continue over the next several weeks, state transportation officials said Monday.

Slated for July 4, the Glacier View car launch annually draws hundreds of visitors to a staging area on the riverbank to witness dozens of cars, buses, or trailers launched hundreds of feet down a bluff.

“This is probably going to be our last year unless the river brings it back,” Arnie Hrncir, who works with his son and daughter-in-law to stage the spectacle, said Monday. “The river is high right now, and the main channel has moved away from us, thank the Lord for that. But there’s so much overflow coming out of the main channel.”

Hrncir, who has been organizing some version of the event since 2005, said the water has consumed about 10 acres of riverbed over time. He said they initially thought 2023 would be the event’s final hurrah, but the river didn’t eat as much of the bank over the year as they had worried.

Just how much space is enough between the spectator area on the riverbank and the bluff where vehicles come crashing down isn’t an exact calculation, he said.

“You stand and look at it and say, ‘Well, that isn’t going to work,’” Hrncir said. “Everything is about safety — we have to have our safety zone.”

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If this is the event's last year, it's likely to be a spectacular one. Hrncir said he has dozens of cars ready for Thursday's launch, including a Barbie-pink Corvette and an old police cruiser.

Each year after the launch is over, his team cleans up and hauls away the scrap metal for recycling, while other pieces, including glass and tires, are loaded into two 40-yard boxes, he said.

Details for the car launch can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

Hrncir said he’s not concerned about the ongoing emergency road construction on the Glenn Highway keeping visitors away from the launch. That work, which begins about 40 miles south of the car launch bluff, started this weekend as the rapidly moving Matanuska River undercut or threatened two sections of the highway.

The northbound lane of the Glenn Highway was closed north of Sutton from about Mile 63.6 to Mile 63.9 over part of the weekend as construction crews shored up the bank with about 5,000 cubic yards of material known as shot rock, Justin Shelby, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said Monday.

Construction was ongoing July 1 on the Glenn Highway between Mile 63.6 and Mile 63.9 after the Matanuska River eroded the bank. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Transportation)

Temporary fixes will be in place by Wednesday, while a more permanent repair will be constructed over the next several weeks to overlay the shot rock with large rocks known as riprap, he said. The work will include intermittent lane closures, he said.

Construction on the area late Monday afternoon included flaggers stopping traffic as large dump trucks exited and entered the highway and crews used heavy equipment to spread material into the riverbank.

After the initial repairs are done, construction on the fix is scheduled to run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, he said. Crews are looking to put 25 to 30 feet between the river and the highway, he said.

State officials had previously planned to make emergency repairs early this week to a separate threatened section of the Glenn Highway at Mile 76 near King Mountain, where the riverbank remained within feet of the highway Monday.

Matanuska River at Mile 76
The Matanuska River sat within feet of the Glenn Highway at Mile 76 on July 1, 2024. (Amy Bushatz/Mat-Su Sentinel)

Repairs on that section will now be delayed at least several days because the fill material previously staged for that work was diverted to the other erosion site, Shelby said. Work will begin when officials have restaged the needed material, he said.

Ultimately, the state will likely do a much larger highway repair project along the stretch, Shelby said. But that construction could be years off as officials work through the design, research, public comment and funding process, he said.

Shelby said state officials are also monitoring river erosion along the Old Glenn Highway at Mile 16.7, just east of the Matanuska River bridge in Palmer. He said no repairs are currently planned for that section.

The two current emergency construction zones on the Glenn Highway north of Sutton sandwich a third, unrelated project that stretches from Miles 66 to 67.2. Crews there are working to replace the Kings River Bridge as well as portions of the Glenn Highway on both sides of the bridge.

Road work between Mile 66 to 67.2 on July 1, 2024. (Amy Bushatz/Mat-Su Sentinel)

Work there is ongoing during the day this week, with a break July 4 to 6 for the holiday, according to a project fact sheet. Construction will shift to nighttime hours starting Sunday, the sheet says, with the road closed completely from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. nightly through July 11.

The project, overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is slated for completion this fall.

-- Amy Bushatz can be contacted at abushatz@matsusentinel.com.

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