Road safety issues talked over

Community leaders, potential stakeholders and concerned residents Tuesday gathered to discuss the future of highway safety on the Kenai Peninsula.

Sen. Mark Begich, who supports the safety initiative through its primary facilitator Girdwood 2020, attended the meeting billed as the Seward and Kenai Peninsula Highway Transportation Corridor Safety Summit hosted at the Kenai Peninsula Borough administration building in Soldotna.

"A plan is needed to fix the highway system," said Dave Wilson, Girdwood 2020 Highway Safety Committee chair.

Municipal officials echoed similar sentiments, but Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said he was concerned about the effectiveness of the plan.

The primary objective of the safety initiative is to provide a safe route from Anchorage to Seward and the Kenai Peninsula.

However, initial goals include forming a comprehensive group of stakeholders and communicating their concerns to the state. A list of 200 wanted stakeholders has been compiled, Wilson said.

Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche agreed to present a resolution to their councils. In its rough draft, the resolution supports forming a group of stakeholders and preparing a memorandum of agreement, a document describing a coordinated effort between parties.

The current timeline for forming a group of stakeholders is the end of May. The memorandum will be altered and agreed upon by the stakeholders, said Diana Livingston, Girdwood 2020 co-chair. The group then will defer its goals to state and federal agencies.

The state's involvement currently is limited. Patrick Kemp, deputy commissioner of the Department of Highways & Public Facilities, echoed support for the plan.

He outlined the Seward Highway Corridor Study, a project to develop a clear vision for the highway segment from Anchorage to Seward, that's separate from the safety initiative. The study is included in the state's fiscal year 2013 capital budget and will receive $2.4 million in funding.

"Putting together a construction phasing plan will come from the study," Kemp said. "It's very difficult.

"Land ownership needs to be switched, there's a park along a stretch of the highway ... we're working backwards to see what the issues are."

Gov. Sean Parnell is uncertain whether this group's initiative will align with the Department of Transportation's own projects, Kemp said.

It is important to gain consensus among all levels of government, Navarre said.

"I'm optimistic and a little concerned," he said. "If the Department of Transportation is not involved it will be like pulling teeth, because they have their own plans. It will be easy to get a resolution, but whether the administration follows through is up in the air."

The summit's facilitators emphasized the importance of completing their goals. An oversight group will be formed to follow implementation of solutions to a timely conclusion, the resolution says.

"There's no consistent flow of information (about highway-safety problems), which causes more meetings with no solutions," Begich said, addressing a Peninsula resident's question about the state's involvement. "I decided to work with my constituents rather than applying for small grants and causing a haphazard approach.

"We need this. Otherwise we're just competing communities."

Chan Lieu, director of governmental affairs in policy and strategic planning for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the highway administration is observing the initiative and may help the state after plans are finalized.

Last year, the Department of Transportation underwent a $2.9 billion decrease in funding. The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate currently are attempting to determine transportation spending.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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