When Alaska voters approved Bonding Proposition A in November’s general election, they also gave the thumbs up for $20 million of the $453.5 million package to go toward rehabilitating the Kenai Spur Highway.
However, the project is only loosely defined.
State Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said he wanted $35 million for the project, which would widen the Spur between Kenai and Soldotna in its two-lane portions to four lanes with a turning lane.
“That was the request I sent in, but they just funded $20 million of it,” Wagoner said. “It wasn’t a very smart deal, but that is the way it happened. At least we got over half of it ready to go.”
The project has been on Wagoner’s wish list for a while, he said. In fact, construction was supposed to happen before he left office as Kenai mayor in 1985 and was a primary objective of his during his Senate tenure, which will end when Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche takes the reins next year.
“It has been a frustrating 25 years,” Wagoner said.
DOT Transportation and Public Facilities Division Director Jeff Ottesen wrote in an email that legislative projects like the Spur improvements usually include “a somewhat detailed statement of project scope and purpose.”
“It simply says, ‘Rehabilitate road between Soldotna and Kenai,’” Ottesen wrote. “In our lexicon, rehabilitation of an existing road generally involves repairs and/or replacement of existing components (sub-base, drainage features, lighting, curbs and gutter, pavement and/or bridges). It generally does not cover new lanes or even turning lanes, but that is not an absolute rule.”
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch shared Wagoner’s frustration, advising residents to not hold their breath for a four-lane Spur Highway in the next few years.
“It will be a while,” he said. “I think the very earliest that you would see, and this is my crystal ball, is three years from now, probably four years is a more accurate gauge.”
Wagoner said he thinks $20 million will be enough to complete the project if the Alaska Department of Transportation doesn’t get “too extravagant,” but Koch disagreed.
“It is an easy $40 million considering what we’ve seen in the cost of construction the last few years with the cost of energy stuff,” he said. “So, you’ve got half the money and $10 million of that is just going to get burned up with all the (pre-construction work). So then you’ve got $10 million to actually do something with.”
Koch said the Spur is made dangerous by the two different flows of traffic traveling it — those commuting from Soldotna or Kenai and those drivers using the highway to access homes, neighborhoods and businesses lining it.
Each summer the highway is a magnet for accidents due to high traffic, but turn pockets could ease some of that congestion, Koch said.
Koch thinks $10 million would be enough to rehabilitate the major intersections — Beaver Loop, Silver Salmon, Strawberry Road.
“There are five of them that you could build a four-lane with turn pockets,” Koch said. “You could put in the lighting improvements, you could probably do a fair amount of utility relocation because somebody was actually thinking when they did the initial Spur improvements — everything except one set of telecommunications overhead cables are way back at the edge of the right of way.”
By the time that construction is complete, Koch said, the state might have found funding for the rest of the project.
“If we get $20 million now, the other portion will come along,” he said. “It would be silly to not finish the rest.”
Wagoner said he originally wanted the project to be included in the Legislature’s capital budget. But, much to his dismay, the project landed in the bonding proposition through the work of other legislators that wanted to free up room for their “goodies” in the capital budget, Wagoner said.
“So when we had the money for it, instead of paying for it, we bonded for it,” he said.
Wagoner said DOT was the reason the project has been stalled so long.
“Dealing with the DOT? Let me tell you something, they are going to do what they want to do not what the people on the Peninsula want done,” he said. “That’s been one of the biggest frustrations I’ve had for 10 years working at the state level.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.