Summer construction along the Kenai Spur Highway may be an inconvenience to area residents now, but by the end of the summer their patience will be rewarded with a brand new pedestrian and bicycle trail.
Now that the snow has melted and the frost has left the ground, work has begun again on the Unity Trail project. This $2.2 million-plus project, when completed, will run from Mile 2.8 of the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna to Mile 8.1 in Kenai. The total proposed Unity Trail project will stretch from the Kenai Spur Highway starting point in Soldotna, to Bridge Access Road, across the Kenai River and up Kalifornsky Beach Road to the Sterling Highway.
The K-Beach section of the trail is already completed, and the Bridge Access Road section is a separate project that awaits resolution of environmental concerns.
Subcontractor crews began work on the Spur Highway section about three weeks ago, said John Turley, project engineer from the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
"We've started construction for the summer," he said. "The frost is leaving the soil and we're gearing up for a new season."
Utility companies have been moving lines in anticipation of the project and are nearly finished with their work, Turley said.
The only construction work being done at the moment is excavation and some pipe fitting, said Bobby McCown, superintendent with Alaska Roadbuilders, the contractor for the project.
"Everything's going as planned," McCown said. "So far we're starting at the beginning of the project and getting the major fills ready to be filled."
Seasonal road restrictions placed on axle-weight limits are keeping construction from beginning in earnest, because contractors can't start hauling in gravel and other construction materials until the restrictions lift. McCown anticipates being able to begin hauling within the month.
Another seasonal construction holdup is water levels. The trail will have to cross wetlands, which will require workers to implement environmental protection measures to minimize runoff. But high water levels from the spring thaw need to recede before work can begin in those areas.
Beaver Creek will be the largest and most work-intensive wetland area the DOT and construction crews will face.
"Beaver Creek is certainly the largest body of moving water and most critically sensitive area," Turley said, although throughout the project various environmental protection measures will be taken.
The trail will have to go over Beaver Creek, potentially disturbing the natural habitat the stream supports. According to Kenai Peninsula Borough code, excavation needed to lay the path down over Beaver Creek is prohibited within the 50-foot Beaver Creek habitat protection area. The borough planning commission, however, has granted a conditional-use permit for the project under specific terms.
Construction must not harm plant life in the area, and any vegetation killed during the project must be replanted. The developers must protect against soil erosion and ensure that the free passage of spawning fish is not hindered.
"I would say we, as a department, have become more and more sensitive to stream and wetlands issues as a continuous process over the years," Turley said. "There are definitely a lot of measures being put into place because (Beaver Creek) is a sensitive site."
These measures include sandbag dikes and straw bales to block runoff, silt fans and basins to catch sediment and the instillation of a culvert.
DOT and contractors will lay the culvert in the creek and fit metal plating over the top. The plating will then be paved over by the trail's hard-top surface.
Work on the Beaver Creek section of the trail will necessitate traffic detours in the early part of the summer, Turley said, as soon as construction can begin.
"As stream levels lower, one of the first priorities will be to get into Beaver Creek and start working on that pipe," he said.
Clarion reporter Marcus K. Garner contributed to this story.
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