State revamps upgrade plans

Kinder, gentler North Road?

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

Dozens of the people turned out for a special meeting in Nikiski to discuss road repairs with state officials and elected representatives.

Residents came to the meeting skeptical. Most left with new optimism.

Three senior staffers from the Alaska Department of Transporta-tion and Public Facilities came from Anchorage for the event, joining Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Jack Brown on a panel to answer questions. Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, attended via teleconference.

The community has been alarmed by the rapid deterioration of the North Road section of the Kenai Spur Highway this winter, forcing drivers to run a gauntlet of potholes. Most of the roadway from Kenai to Nikiski is 30-year-old asphalt, and portions of it are so worn down they are only about half an inch thick.

Murph O'Brien, staff assistant to the DOT regional director, offered assurances that repaving will begin as soon as the construction season starts.

"Can we get that in writing?" asked Mike Peek, noting that residents expected the work to take place last summer.

Peek pointed out that even if Nikiski has fewer cars on the road than some state highways, its vehicles include some massive industrial loads. He listed several rigs the petrochemical companies plan to move around this summer as examples.

"The North Road will be busier than ever this year," he said.

People in the audience expressed frustration with past delays and the lack of upgrades compared with those in other communities on the peninsula.

"We are just being left in the dust out here, literally," complained Gary Superman.

O'Brien said that Alaska Road Builders is poised to begin work resurfacing Mile 10 to 22, starting this spring.

The recent crisis with the road surface has prompted DOT to expand the project's scope. Based on the breakup of the road and the heightened interest from the state government, DOT is planning to upgrade the quality of the resurfacing and to provide additional interim paving from Mile 22 to Mile 29. State engineers toured the road Tuesday and a detailed planning meeting about the road was scheduled for Friday.

Doing interim paving on the northern segment this summer would be a new project. Cost estimates, plans and the bid process will take time. The earliest that phase could begin would be mid-July, he said.

"The commissioner told us to get it done, and that is what we are trying to do," O'Brien told the crowd.

"It is not a difficult project. ... We are confident we can get it done this summer."

As the plans for summer paving take form, people present voiced concerns about the long-term outlook for Nikiski's overall road infrastructure. Specific issues raised included:

n potential damage or access limitations to the escape route because of traffic diverting during roadwork;

n the adequacy of the staffing and equipment at the Nikiski DOT maintenance station to handle the work load;

n the ability of an interim paving job to stand up to wear and tear;

n portions of the highway are close enough to the bluff to be potentially endangered by erosion;

n congestion and hazardous driving when traffic turns left into the industrial plants during shift changes; and

n the threat that an interim paving job could postpone or jeopardize getting a long-term fix.

For a long-term solution, speakers in the audience advocated a durable road surface, more lanes, more resources for the Nikiski maintenance station and possibly moving the main road away from the eroding bluff and the industrial plants.

In the meantime, everyone present agreed that road maintenance workers are doing a great job patching potholes. The audience spontaneously gave them a round of applause.

Ward said he would be able to do more now that he is on the Senate's Finance Committee. He said he would seek funding, in an amount to be determined later, for interim paving on the northern section of the road; $500,000 for upgrading the escape route; and $100,000 for developing long-term plans for Nikiski transportation needs.

Brown urged people to sign up for a committee to research and write a transportation plan for Nikiski.

O'Brien said he will have more information about the summer paving plans and the additional costs after the Anchorage meetings. He and other DOT officials plan to return to Nikiski to provide an update of the repair plans at an April 2 meeting of the North Peninsula Community Council.

O'Brien agreed with the elected officials that this is a good time for the community to move forward on getting the roads people want. He recommended that the community work with the borough administration to seek funding.

He pointed out that increased federal highway funding in recent years follows a long financing drought for Alaska road work.

"Many of the projects we are doing, we are playing catch-up. We are playing catch-up all over the state," he said.

The state is one of only two in the nation that does not run its own road-building program, and it is drawing in five or six federal highway dollars for every one residents send to D.C. via gas taxes. This year, the state will get about $350 million in federal road funding, he explained.

"Our programs are fiscally limited," he said. "$350 million sounds like an awful lot of money, but it goes awful fast."

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