State moves toward Sterling Highway upgrade near Cooper Landing

Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2001

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- The state has hired an engineering firm to recommend a redesign of the twisting Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing.

HDR Alaska is the same company that designed the state's Whittier road tunnel. It will oversee the complex task of building 15 miles of highway through the Kenai Peninsula's sportfishing heartland, running between Kenai Lake and the Russian River.

The state long has promoted a northern bypass around Cooper Landing. That would put it across the river from the current highway. But a new alternative has emerged over the past few months that skirts the community from the south.

Both options cut through rugged hills in the narrow river valley, which is a migratory corridor for salmon and other wildlife. The area also is rich in archaeology and has become a scenic magnet for hikers and mountain bikers.

''There are some challenges with this one,'' said Mark Dalton, HDR's project manager. ''Plus, how many projects do you see that look at bypassing the community?''

Dalton, several co-workers and some state Department of Transportation engineers and planners spent half the day Tuesday in Soldotna and the other half in Cooper Landing in informal meetings with whoever showed up to talk about an eventual highway route.

''There are no easy solutions. It's a very constrained area. Every solution has impacts,'' Miriam Tanaka, the state's project manager, told the Anchorage Daily News.

Beyond the concerns of residents, local business owners and recreationalists, planners also are concerned about how the new stretch of road may affect brown bears.

Bears migrate through the upper Kenai River valley to feed. And there are many important archaeological sites to avoid, such as prehistoric fish camps once used by Athabaskan and earlier cultures.

State road engineers still want to upgrade the route, however, contending it's too congested, too narrow and falls short of safety standards.

The state is hoping to release an Environment Impact Statement by the end of next summer and announce its preferred route by the end of next year. Construction is scheduled for the year 2006.

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