The state and the stakeholders are stuck between a rock and a number of legal hard places on the long-awaited Cooper Landing Bypass project.
The road project, in talks for nearly 40 years, would build an alternate highway route to bypass the small Kenai River community of Cooper Landing, which huddles along the Sterling Highway in a 35-mile-per-hour zone riddled with curves and shoulders where visitors and residents walk throughout the summer. Drivers headed to Soldotna from Anchorage encounter about 20 signs in Cooper Landing reminding them to drive 35 miles per hour, from printed letters on the road to standard metal signs to handmade wooden signs nailed on trees.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced in December 2015 that it had chosen a preferred route for the road, called the G-South Alternative. The route, which departs from the Sterling Highway north of the bridge across the Kenai River and travels along the north side, crossing again between Mile 51 and 52 over a new bridge to rejoin the old Sterling Highway, constructs about 5.5 miles of new road and costs approximately $303.5 million, in majority funded with federal dollars.
However, almost immediately after the preferred route was announced, some objected to the route. In early October, a group of approximately 19 Kenai Peninsula organizations — including the borough government and the cities of Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, the Kenaitze and Salamatof tribes and the Ninilchik Traditional Council — sent a letter to DOT opposing the G South Alternative and supporting the Juneau Creek Alternative, which goes north into the mountains and avoids building a new bridge across the Kenai River.
The letter highlights two major concerns — the impact on the Kenai River and the lack of public input on the choice of the G-South Alternative. The G-South Alternative doesn’t bypass a section of highway, known as the Gwin’s Lodge curve, that the letter identifies as the part of the road with the highest crash rate cited in the draft Environmental Impact Statement, and the DOT did not give the protection of the Kenai River adequate weight in the decision, the letter states.
“We believe that an alternative that does not move the highway off of the Kenai River Corridor does not meet the purpose and need of this project,” the letter states.
Kelly Summers, the project engineer, said the letter amounted to the organizations saying they supported Juneau Creek without addressing the issues that made G-South the preferred route.
Summers said in a recent presentation to the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board that although the Juneau Creek Alternative is a safer and better-performing road, there are a number of issues that prevent it being the best choice. Ultimately, DOT doesn’t get to make the decision — the Federal Highway Administration does.
The Juneau Creek Alternative runs into three problems. First is that it goes into a congressionally designated wilderness area, which prohibits development without approval by Congress. Second, it bisects the Resurrection Pass Trail, which is a Conservation System Unit protected by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Third, it would impact the Juneau Falls National Recreation Area, which violates a section of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 which says that the Federal Highway Administration cannot approve the use of land from publicly owned parks, recreational areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges or public and private historical sites unless there is no way to avoid it or that the impact will be minimal. Fourth, it impacts a Kenaitze Indian Tribe historical site near the Russian River.
The wilderness designation could go away through a land exchange authorized by the Russian River Land Act of 2002, but given the other obstacles, even that may not make the Juenau Creek Route possible, Summers told the KRSMA board.
“It is very unlikely that even if that (wilderness) designation is gone that we would be able to build it or select it,” Summers said.
The KRSMA board joined in the letter opposing the G-South Alternative and grilled Summers at its Thursday meeting.
Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and a member of the KRSMA board, said at the meeting that the G-South is more expensive and that the potential risk to the Kenai River should carry more weight in the decision.
“When you have an alternative that gets all the truck traffic away from the Kenai River and then you have an alternative that puts it right on the river for four miles … there’s wetlands on every single area,” he said. “I don’t buy that you’re going to expand the roads and bring them up to highway standards at 55, 65 miles an hour.”
The DOT proposed four new road alternatives: Cooper Creek, Juneau Creek, Juneau Creek Variant and G-South. There is a fifth alternative: to do nothing, although the department would upgrade the road without moving it. The road is not currently up to highway standards and to widen it, improving the shoulders and correcting some of the curves, the department would have to build a 160-foot retaining wall in the town, the equivalent of approximately a five-story building. If the wall fell, it could block the road and dam the river, Summers said.
The Cooper Creek alternative would require a lot of private land to be purchased and would not avoid the town of Cooper Landing, and it also doesn’t perform as well for traffic, so it is not the preferred route, although it does avoid the new bridge over the Kenai River, she said.
“G-South is the compromise, without being horrendous as far as private property and affecting the community and tearing the community apart for … the Cooper Creek (Alternative),” Summers said.
People can still submit comments on the project. She said commenters should provide specific issues rather than just to say they support one alternative over another.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.