Engineers studying reconstruction of the Sterling Highway by Cooper Landing are considering a route across Cooper Creek on the south side of the Kenai River.
That option joins two others on the table -- a route along the Kenai River or a route south of Cooper Landing that crosses Juneau Creek and the Resurrection Pass Trail about a quarter mile above Juneau Falls.
The Alaska Department of Transpor-tation and Public Facilities published draft environmental impact statements for the project in 1982 and 1994, and in 1995, voiced its preference for the Juneau Creek route. Now, it has hired HDR Alaska Inc. to involve the public and update the previous studies.
"Lots has changed since the project began in the early 1980s," said Mark Dalton, project manager for HDR Alaska. "The department has stepped back and asked people to revisit all of these alternatives."
HDR plans public meetings today from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Peninsula Center Mall commons in Soldotna and from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Cooper Landing Community Center on Bean Creek Road to present project information and hear the public's ideas, concerns and questions.
There will be another meeting Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the DOT office at 4111 Aviation Drive in Anchorage. The public can mail written comments to Miriam Tanaka, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, 4111 Aviation Drive, Anchorage, AK 99503 or e-mail them to email@example.com.
Dalton said HDR already has begun engineering work.
"Now, it's time to start talking to the agencies and the public and see what their concerns are," he said.
Bill Shuster, a wildlife biologist with Chugach National Forest in Seward, said the U.S. Forest Service is interested in exploring the Cooper Creek route, which avoids the popular Resurrection Pass Trail.
By contrast, a new highway on the Juneau Creek route would cut several miles from the trail and leave several Forest Service cabins close to the highway and possibly subject to vandalism.
The Cooper Creek route may do less harm to brown bears, he said, since the bears use that area less than lower Juneau Creek, which draws spawning salmon.
Dalton said all three routes leave the present highway at Mile 45 by the bridge across the lower end of Kenai Lake.
The Cooper Creek route climbs the bench south of Cooper Landing, crosses Cooper Creek and rejoins the existing highway just north of Gwin's Lodge. It crosses mainly Kenai Peninsula Borough-owned land and would require construction of about five miles of new highway. Dalton estimated the cost at $44 million to $62 million.
"The big-ticket item is a very expensive bridge," he said. "By Cooper Creek, there is a significant low spot you have to bridge to get back to the Cooper Creek valley."
The Kenai River route follows the Kenai River valley. However, straightening corners to bring the highway to current standards requires four new bridges across the Kenai River. That raises habitat concerns, he said. The route also cuts through land now classified as state park. He estimated the cost at about $49 million.
Tanaka, the state's project manager, said the large road cuts required could a have significant visual impact along the river, and right of way acquisition would affect lots of private property. The river route lies on the shady side of the valley and would be prone to icing.
The Juneau Creek route runs north of the Kenai River, passing above Bean Creek and Juneau Falls and through Chugach National Forest. It would either rejoin the existing highway by the Russian River ferry or cross designated wilderness in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to rejoin further down the Kenai River.
Like the Cooper Creek route, the Juneau Creek route bypasses the congestion in downtown Cooper Landing. That could could hurt businesses along the present highway, Tanaka said, but it could be an advantage to owners of homes by the highway.
Dalton said the Juneau Creek route requires about 11.5 miles of new highway and would cost about $33 million. It is less expensive than the other routes because it requires just one small bridge across Juneau Creek, he said.
However, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act designates the wilderness area and makes the Resurrection Pass Trail a national recreation trail. Crossing either would require congressional approval, he said.
Meanwhile, Forest Service rules adopted under former President Bill Clinton ban most new roads in roadless areas of national forests.
Chuck Frey, a planner with Chugach National Forest, said President George W. Bush has put off implementing the rules until May 12. What will happen after that is unclear.
The roadless rules do allow construction, reconstruction and realignment of federal-aid highways if:
n The work is in the public interest or consistent with the purposes for which the land was acquired or reserved;
n The project is prudent and reasonable;
n There is no feasible alternative.
If the roadless rules stand, Frey said, an environmental impact statement for the Juneau Creek route would have to address those points.
Dalton said he expects to continue public outreach efforts for the next six months. Depending on what highway planners learn, he said, HDR Alaska could hold formal scoping meetings this summer.
He said the environmental impact statement also must consider maintaining the status quo -- the present highway.
"We have to look at that and disclose what that means with respect to traffic safety and congestion," he said. "It has to be treated fairly and equally with the other alternatives."
He said he hopes to publish a draft supplemental environmental impact statement next winter. There would be a six-month review and comment period after that before planners decide the route.
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