The Cooper Landing bypass idea is still alive.
The Alaska Department of Transportation is pushing forward on the decades-old idea of rerouting traffic through a new section of the Sterling Highway built around Cooper Landing and the stretch of road that hasn’t seen major improvement since it was first built.
Kelly Peterson, who is the project manager of the Sterling Highway milepost 45-60 project, said construction could start as soon as summer 2018 once environmental impacts are considered, a route is picked, designs finalized and funding secured.
“There are so many things that could go wrong,” she said. “But if they don’t, this is what could happen if things don’t go wrong.”
Currently, DOT is working on a supplemental draft environmental impact statement that looks at four routes, one of which is new and was unveiled at a Wednesday public meeting in Cooper Landing.
The current highway, Peterson said, was originally built to “fit the terrain” and hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.
“Since the 40s vehicle types have changed, users have changed and of course the volumes have changed and, of course, the road hasn’t been able to change with it,” she said.
Several proposed alternative routes were planned out in a 1994 draft environmental impact statement, but that document never resulted in a final recommendation from the department, Peterson said.
The current alternatives being considered are:
* G South alternative, which runs from milepost 46 to 52 and would create a new bridge crossing of the river at milepost 52 where it reconnects to the existing highway and would cross Bean and Juneau creeks. Cost is estimated at $270 million.
* Cooper Creek alternative, which follows the existing route to the Kenai Lake bridge and then branches south, reconnecting with the road at milepost 52. That route would include a new, widened bridge at Kenai Lake with a slightly different alignment, Peterson said. Cost is estimated at $260 million.
* Juneau Creek alternative, which follows the G South route, but eventually branches north and continues through the mountains and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wilderness area meeting the highway again at milepost 56. The alternative would feature an 825-foot crossing of Juneau Creek Canyon near Juneau Creek falls, which would be the longest bridge in the state if built. Cost is estimated at $225 million.
The new alternative unveiled Wednesday at a public meeting in Cooper Landing tweaks the Juneau Creek alternative, said Alvin Talbert, DOT assistant project manager. The variant still goes through portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge but avoids two designated wilderness areas before reconnecting with the existing highway at Sportsman’s Landing. Cost is estimated at $230 million.
A 1994 draft EIS of the project was “controversial,” Peterson said, because the DOT later released a statement identifying the Juneau Creek alternative as the state’s preferred alternative despite concerns about it going through wilderness areas.
“That has been very controversial and it still is today,” she said.
Talbert said the Juneau Creek alternative variant should mitigate those wilderness concerns.
“We sort of ducked down to sort of make it swoop down and come into the original alignment just before we go into the wilderness,” Talbert said. “That happens to be where Sportsman’s Landing is, the ferry crossing.”
However, in the DOT’s current effort it will not generate a state-preferred alternative, Peterson said. Rather, the state wants to hear what the public and other agencies have to say about the routes, she said.
If built, the new highway section would be two, 12-foot wide lanes with shoulders for a total of a 40-foot wide top that would match sections of the highway to the east and west. Currently, the stretch of road running through the area has two, 11-foot wide lanes and limited or no shoulder space.
“We are striving for consistency in the driving experience and of course to meet standards,” Peterson said.
Sections of the road where the alternative routes run concurrent with the existing highway will up upgraded and widened with shoulders and passing lanes, Peterson said.
DOT spokesman Rick Feller said the department is already planning an overlay of the highway near Cooper Landing next summer from milepost 45 to 58.
Currently, the DOT is working to finish up its agency coordination efforts before issuing the draft supplemental EIS, Peterson said.
According to the project’s website, when the draft supplemental EIS is completed in 2013, it will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration and other state and federal agencies for consideration. Once those comments have been addressed, the draft will be released to the public for review and a comment period in 2014. A record of decision will be the project’s final step and if a build alternative is selected, that decision will enable the department to start a design process.
“This project has been going on so long that a lot of the players have changed, a lot of requirements, laws and regulations have changed and we are trying to keep on top of all of them and fulfill all of the requirements of all of them,” Peterson said.
Peterson expects the next few years of work on the project to be challenging, but there are several reasons the highway needs work.
“The three needs we have identified are congestion, roadway deficiencies and ineffective highway functionality,” she said.
“You drive down there and you go, ‘Gosh, why are there no shoulders?’ I used to think that until I was in charge of the project and now I know that if you step off the pavement, you are in somebody’s resource. The project is really about everybody’s different feelings toward their resource and there are so many different things out there.”
One of those resources is the Cooper Landing business community, which had previously expressed concern about the economic impacts of diverting traffic away from the town, Peterson said. DOT wants to maintain the town’s “functional integrity,” she said.
“I know some businesses in the past had expressed concern that a new Cooper Landing is going to spring up along the new alignment and we are proposing measures that that is not going to happen,” she said. “We hope that when we speak to the business communities that they will be quelled by that and they’ll have the assurance that there isn’t going to be a second business district popping up to compete with what is currently in Cooper Landing.”
The DOT will host a second project update meeting from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday at 4111 Aviation Drive in Anchorage in the DOT conference room with a presentation planned for 6 p.m.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.