Spur Highway decay irks drivers, lawmakers, maintenance crews

Potholes: North Road rage

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The Kenai Spur Highway -- or North Road -- between Kenai and Nikiski is falling apart.

Repaving part of it is scheduled for this summer, but how the project got to this point and where it will go next is anything but straightforward.

Tuesday, the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities sent a team of engineers to the site to evaluate it for an interim fix. Thursday, legislators and community members will discuss plans for improving the road.

Meanwhile, area drivers keep the phone lines buzzing with complaints, and both pothole patching crews and the rumor mill are working overtime. Postponements and plan changes have created impatience and confusion.

"They've let it go and let it go," said Nikiski resident Wayne Pattison.

"It is frustrating. I was driving down through there and saw these Volkswagen-sized chuckholes."


Hundreds of potholes dot the Kenai Spur Highway in Nikiski. A repaving and widening project is once again on the drawing board for the well-traveled road.


Another north peninsula resident, Gail Bacarella, said she hit a pothole back in January that knocked the transmission out of her truck. She wants the state to reimburse her repair costs.

"My boyfriend's parents took a loan out to fix it. It's a nice vehicle," she said. "I was really burnt, like to the nth degree."

She and her family began a letter-writing campaign to state and federal officials urging a prompt rebuild. To document her complaint she went back to the scene, took photos and counted the potholes along a quarter-mile stretch.

"In one lane there were 67 holes," she said. "I think the grand total was 120."

The road surface is about 30 years old, according to DOT sources.

Earlier this winter, George Church, the DOT's district superintendent for peninsula roads, reported that the combination of aging and this year's relentless freeze-thaw cycles are demolishing the road surface. He described the Nikiski stretch as the worst state-maintained road on the peninsula. It is only getting worse, despite constant attention from maintenance crews.

The hassle has a political dimension as well and has prompted some finger pointing.

Upgrading the roadway was identified as a need within DOT about 1994, said Murph O'Brien, staff assistant to the regional director.

"It did not show up in ... the actual funding list until 1998," he said.

The preliminary plan, described in a 1999 "pre-draft" of the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) needs list, called for rehabilitating the road from Mile 10.6 to 29.7. The project was to include resurfacing and the addition of shoulders and a pedestrian pathway between Island Lake and Lamplight roads. The estimated price tag for construction was $4.5 million, and the department anticipated doing the work in fiscal year 2002.

But then the planned project was scrapped as part of a cost-saving measure approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Still, DOT officials said they are pushing for the work to be done as quickly as possible.

"There are a lot of complicated issues here," said Rex Young, the DOT's area planner for the Kenai Peninsula.

The original project was supposed to use federal funding earmarked for the National Highway System. The North Road beyond Mile 22 was not part of that system and DOT had to go through a time-consuming process to get the roadway reclassified with the federal government, he said.

The sheer age of the road posed other problems. The northern section, due for widening, is so old that all the state's survey and land ownership information about the area is obsolete. The state needs to research property that may be affected by the road work.

"Anytime we have to acquire rights of way, we have to add a year to the project. At least," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said people got the wrong idea when the project did not show up on some rough draft STIP lists, but department planners made corrections before the final versions were done.

"At one point in time it did not turn up in two draft documents," he said. "It has been our intention all along to work it in."

The project has long been a top priority for the department's own personnel in the area, they stressed.

"This is a project we want to get done. That is a maintenance nightmare out there," Young said.

The project was not dropped, but it was split in two, they explained.

Because of complications dealing with the area north of Mile 22, the DOT separated out that portion so it would not hold up the rest of the road work. The southern section, from Bridge Access Road in Kenai to the Rig Tenders Dock, was scheduled for fiscal year 2000 funding and 2001 construction, O'Brien said.

In May 2000, the department held a public meeting in Nikiski to explain the changes.

DOT planners had hoped to get the contract out and the work started last fall, but the weather was not cooperative, O'Brien said.

The state let the contract for the work to Alaska Road Builders in October for $3.46 million.

Work will begin as soon as spring weather conditions permit, probably in May, said Blake Hardina, vice president of Alaska Road Builders. The project is basically an asphalt overlay with a small amount of widening, he said.

The plan now on DOT's drawing board for the section from Mile 22 to 29.7 will be more complicated, including addition of shoulders, a pathway between Nikiski Elementary and Nikiski Middle-Senior High schools and the rebuilding of intersections. The detailed planning is scheduled to begin as early as this October, with construction planned for 2006, O'Brien said.

A proposal now under consideration in Juneau, called the Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) package, includes the Nikiski North Kenai Spur Road Mileposts 22 to 29.7 Rehabilitation for $10.6 million. If the Legislature approves the GARVEE, it would accelerate the construction phase to 2004, he said.

North peninsula residents want to encourage that momentum. Rep. Mike Chenault, borough assembly member Jack Brown and the North Peninsula Community Council are focusing on the issue.

They want to ensure that the community gets both a quick interim fix and a quality project to serve the area for years to come.

Brown, who has been meeting with residents, DOT representatives and lawmakers this week, said this is an opportunity for Nikiski's people to design a total plan. Tuesday he said he senses new optimism about the project. He cited U.S. Rep. Don Young's new post on the House Transportation Commit-tee as a chance to obtain federal funding for the road.

"We are going to propose a radical redesign of the road," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

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