Traffic safety and protecting the Kenai River from toxic spills were top concerns raised at meetings to examine alternatives for rebuilding the Sterling Highway by Cooper Landing.
For many, those concerns tipped the scales toward the Juneau Creek route, which passes through undeveloped land north of the town.
Sterling trucker Tom Hubbard, who hauls bread nightly from Anchorage to Kenai Peninsula grocery stores, said improvements to that dangerous stretch of highway have been needed for years.
"I run over that road 100,000 miles per year. I've seen every kind of fatality between 7 at night and 4 in the morning," he said. "I think the best way to do it is to bypass Cooper Landing. That's the safest way and the fastest route."
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and HDR Alaska Inc., which the state hired to involve the public and update environmental studies for the project, held meetings Tuesday in Soldotna and Cooper Landing to present the options and hear the public's questions and ideas. There are three alternatives on the table:
n The Juneau Creek route runs north of Cooper Landing, above Bean Creek and into Chugach National Forest. It crosses Juneau Creek and the Resurrection Pass Trail about a quarter mile above Juneau Falls. It would either rejoin the existing highway by the Russian River ferry or cross designated wilderness in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to rejoin it further down the highway.
Mark Dalton, project manager for HDR, said the Juneau Creek route requires about 11.5 miles of new road. He estimated the cost at $30 million to $40 million, based on the terrain and average construction costs of about $2.5 million per mile. It would be less expensive to build than the other routes because it requires just one small bridge across Juneau Creek, he said.
However, crossing the wilderness area and the Resurrection Pass Trail would require congressional approval. New regulations that ban most road construction in roadless areas of national forests also could be an obstacle.
n The Kenai River route follows the Kenai River valley. However, Dalton said, straightening corners to bring the highway to current standards requires four new bridges across the Kenai River, raising habitat concerns. The route also cuts through land now classified as state park. Large road cuts could affect scenery along the river, and right-of-way acquisition would affect lots of private property. Dalton estimated the cost at about $49 million.
n 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, requires about five miles of new road and would require construction of an expensive bridge over Cooper Creek. Dalton estimated the cost at $44 million to $62 million. Bill Robertson of R&M Consultants, an engineer on the project, said it may be possible to design a shorter bridge over Cooper Creek, and that could cut the cost.
Dalton said the environmental impact statement also must consider the no-action alternative -- sticking to the present highway route.
Hubbard favored the Juneau Creek route and said the Cooper Creek route, which lies on the shaded side of the valley, would be prone to winter icing. While a Juneau Creek highway would cut the Resurrection Pass Trail, he said, new pull-outs and restrooms could increase recreational access.
Scott Thomas of Alaska Wildland Adventures, which offers Kenai River fishing and float trips, said the Kenai River route would put a bridge near the company's lodge.
"Cutting the Resurrection Pass Trail would be an impact, because we do hike that trail. I know there are concerns about brown bears on that route, as well," he said.
But he did not argue for a particular route.
"My biggest concern is that they make the highway safer. If you drive it in summer, you see a lot of dangerous activities. There's no place to pull off, no place to walk, no place to ride a bicycle. I've seen people just stop dead in the road to watch a moose, and you've got all this traffic going by at 50 and 60 miles per hour."
Mark Wilson, owner of Hamilton's Place in Cooper Landing, said planners still have not addressed how a route that bypasses town would affect his business.
"They ought to stay with the existing highway," he said.
The Juneau Creek route would only cut about two minutes off a trip through the area, he said, but it would spoil the scenery, cross prime Dall sheep habitat and cut several miles from the Resurrection Pass Trail.
"I got a petition at the store a couple of years ago when they started talking about cutting the trail," he said. "I got hundreds of signatures from all over the world. The biggest reason they said was they didn't want to shorten the trail."
Robert Siter, who owns Gwin's Lodge, said he favors the Cooper Creek route. Obviously, he is concerned with maintaining the traffic past Gwin's, he said.
But it is the wildlife and scenery that draw visitors to Cooper Landing, and the Juneau Creek route would have a tremendous impact on those. Siter said it makes more sense to build the Cooper Creek route though the area south of the Kenai River, which already has been developed.
Warren Pruitt favors the Juneau Creek route. The Cooper Creek route leaves too much highway beside the Kenai River, he said. Last summer, a truck carrying paint and solvents overturned near Gwin's, he said, and a toxic spill that reaches the river could impact fish for years.
"One major spill, and it's all over here for a long time," he said. "I've been expecting it to happen. It just hasn't happened yet."
James Givens of Cooper Landing said his main concern is safety. The Cooper Creek route still sends all the traffic past the congested Russian River area, he observed.
"That's where all the activity is," he said. "The Juneau Creek route bypasses that congested area."
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 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.
Robertson said construction could begin between 2003 and 2006.
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