Bikers, joggers, walkers and inline skaters soon will be able to find safe passage between Kenai and Soldotna along the Kenai Spur Highway. But not along Bridge Access Road. Not yet, anyway.
The Unity Trail, a pedestrian path connecting the two cities along the Spur Highway, is scheduled to begin construction as early as May.
However, because of concerns over the impact of pedestrian traffic to the migratory bird habitat on the Kenai River flats, a time frame for linking the Spur Highway trail to an already-completed bike path on Kalifornsky Beach Road via Bridge Access Road remains uncertain.
"We don't have the answer to that," said John Dickenson, of the Alaska Department of Transpor-tation and Public Facilities. "You can't put a deadline on resolving these issues."
When completed, the collection of trails will extend from Mile 2.8 of the Spur in Soldotna to Kenai, across Bridge Access Road, and back up K-Beach Road toward the Sterling Highway. But that plan awaits the results from DOT environmental assessments.
"We've completed public meetings, which were needed to determine the impacts to migratory wildlife there," Dickenson said. "Trail users could be disturbances to the snow geese and sandhill cranes during spring migration."
Several public scoping meetings were held last year to determine the best way to continue the path with the least effect on the flatlands.
Area residents, as well as several local, state and federal agencies, provided input. Among those interested agencies were the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kenai River Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Depart-ment of Fish and Game.
Dickenson said DOT received a list of issues from those meetings to weigh before construction of the trail could begin, but pinpointing exact migratory usage in the area is the most daunting.
"There is very little relevant data in regard to existing wildlife use and population in the area, so it would be difficult to evaluate potential risks," he said.
Fish and Game habitat biologist Glenda Landua said although DOT said there was a wide variety of animals that travel to the flats annually, it is difficult to say just how many and what kinds of birds will be affected.
"There are some pretty unique things going on with that area," Landua said. "The area changes from year to year. If the west side of Cook Inlet is still snowbound, the flats may be more critical."
Landua said although cars pass by the flats frequently during the migrating season between April and early May, they have no effect on the birds.
"From what we do know, the birds are more prone to respond to people and movement on foot than cars," she said. "What we're not sure of is how foot activity will affect the resting area."
Dickenson said ideas already have been presented for working around the challenges constructing the bike path could face.
"One of the design options that has come up was to not build anything between the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge and the pullout on west side of the roadway," he said.
"Also, an idea would be to not use the pathway during the springtime months when birds are using area."
Dickenson said no specific ideas have yet been developed to enforce the second plan. But he said he has received local encouragement to move forward with the project.
"Some of the issues that came from the state and federal agencies were a clear definition of need and community support of the trail system," he said.
"The city of Kenai and the Kenai Peninsula Borough have given strong community support for a trail and for a recreational facility. People need the bike pathway to increase public safety, and (they) are anxious to use the trail to view wildlife."
Ricky Gease, the director of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, said safety would be a big selling point for bicyclists visiting the area.
"Right now, we're not on the radar screen as far as the biking community is concerned," Gease said. "We're very supportive. Once that gets done, those trails can tie into trails along the Kenai bluff."
Dickenson said he is optimistic DOT can find a solution that will allow the trail and the migrating birds to coexist, so the trail can be finished.
"We hope to be able to finish this environmental assessment in a year. Then we would request approval from the Federal Highway Administration to complete the project," he said.
Landua doesn't share Dickenson's positive outlook. She said the problem is not yet solved, and when it is, there are still a few more approvals the DOT must seek.
"There isn't an end in site because we still have pieces of the puzzle to solve," she said. "In terms of the permitting process, it will go through the Alaska Coastal Management program. If consistent with the coastal management program, permits will be approved. But I don't know if Fish and Game will get to respond to what DOT has."
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