Sterling Highway bridge projects causing one-lane openings, traffic delays and width-restrictions have sparked panic among Ninilchik and Deep Creek residents worried about negative impacts on the summer tourist and construction season.
As of Tuesday, it appears a response by the Alaska Department of Transportation may result in a partial solution to the problem, but not enough for everyone's satisfaction.
The bridge projects, estimated to last 12 weeks and followed by six weeks of similar work on the Kasilof River bridge, are narrowing those Sterling Highway bridges to one lane of traffic. The Ninilchik River bridge was the first to be impacted. Friday, a fence-topped barricade restricted the open lane to widths less than 10 feet, 6 inches, thereby eliminating larger boats and any loads exceeding that width.
Fearing the same would happen at Deep Creek, charter operators spent the weekend and first part of this week scrambling to stage boats south of the construction project in order to avoid being trapped until the project's completion.
"It's incredible," Capt. Rod Van Saun, president of Deep Creek Charterboat Association and owner-operator of Van Saun Charters, said of the lack of advance notification.
A week before learning of the width restriction, Van Saun had purchased a $300 wide-load state permit to transport his charter boat from his base of operations in Ninilchik to launch sites on the southern Kenai Peninsula.
"What it is to me is government acting without regard for the people of the state. We're all just shaking our heads, going 'Are you kidding?' It's right during our prime time. And without any public process? Any public notification?" Van Saun said.
Twenty-six-year charter operator Mike Chihuly, who got his wide-load permit from DOT in March, said the width restriction was not noted at the time.
"The thing that's crazy is they aren't telling anybody," Chihuly said Saturday. "They've done bridges before and there's been no restriction on width. ... Now all of a sudden, 10 feet, 6 inches and you're out. ... Why not do it in August when traffic slows down? I could afford to quit in August if I had to, but not June, July."
Capt. Tim Evers of Fishward Bound Adventures was attempting Monday to get information about the project from the governor's office and legislators representing the central peninsula.
"We can't seem to get anybody," Evers said. "It's just a mess. We're making all the calls we can make, but nobody's getting back to us."
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he had not been told of project specifics. Calls made by the Homer News to Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, were not returned by press time. Wagoner and Chenault represent the Kasilof, Ninilchik and Deep Creek areas.
Although aware of the planned bridge resurfacing, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey had not been told a width restriction would be imposed. Concerned for the impact the three-bridge project would have on the peninsula, Carey had contacted the governor's office in Anchorage, as well as DOT.
"It's absurd that all three bridges are being done at the same time," he said.
Assemblyman Paul Fischer, who represents areas of the central peninsula including Kasilof, Ninilchik and Deep Creek, heard about the project in March, but, like Carey, was unaware it would involve a width restriction.
"You'd think they could wait until after the season," Fischer said, favoring timing that would have had less impact.
Assembly President Milli Martin, who represents parts of the southern peninsula, also spent the weekend making phone calls to help find a solution to the width restriction.
"We're anticipating the worst (tourist) season we've ever had and these people are struggling to stay alive," Martin said of the potential impact to local businesses.
Tuesday morning, with work beginning on the Deep Creek bridge and flaggers directing traffic, an effort was under way to widen the open lane, according to Rick Feller, public relations liaison for DOT.
"What we're working on now is with particular focus on the Deep Creek bridge, extending that lane to 12 feet," Feller said. "From all we're talking to with Deep Creek Charterboat Association and others, it seems like if we can get that done -- and while it's not positive right now, it's looking encouraging that we can -- then that's going to take care of the lion's share of the issue that we have down there with the 10-foot, 6-inch crossing."
The traffic lane on Ninilchik bridge will be unchanged, however.
"We're certainly making every effort to accommodate everyone as fully as we can," Feller said. "We're working on an individual basis to try to do that."
In addition, Feller said DOT is looking at where communication between the state and those impacted by the projects failed.
"It seems like the principal problem was caused by an underestimation or just now recognizing the potential impact on that 10-foot, 6-inch lane," Feller said. "We had contacted people in the community telling them the project was under way, but at each of those contact points, the width issue was not apparently discussed. That really is the root of the problem."
Widening the open lane on Deep Creek bridge won't help Herb Downs, who has plans to develop a gravel pit south of Deep Creek. Unfortunately, the equipment needed for the project is located north of Ninilchik.
"The only thing I can do is sit on it until they make the bridge wider or put (the equipment) on a barge from Nikiski to Homer and bring it up from Homer," Downs said, adding that the cost to do that would put him out of business. "This pretty much shuts me down for the summer."
In addition to operating a fishing charter business, Chihuly is fire chief for Ninilchik Emergency Services. He has been assured ambulances and fire-fighting equipment would be allowed through construction areas in the event of an emergency, but Chihuly said the width restriction still has him concerned.
"The bottom line is, it's going to be a major problem. Period," Chihuly said. "They've basically surrounded the town, where we have our places of business, places to eat, the gas station. It's isolated anybody in there."
The impact goes beyond Ninilchik, according to Chihuly.
"It's really going to affect the amount of people coming down here this summer. And if I was Homer, I'd be worried about it, too," he said. "Just in terms of traffic, tourism, travel, some people will just say, 'The heck with it.'"
Saturday, the Sterling Highway bridge projects were not included on DOT's online information site. By Tuesday, they were included with other DOT projects around the state at 511.alaska.gov. Information also can be found at alaskanavigator.org. To contact Feller about getting a wide load across the Ninilchik River bridge, call 907-269-0772.
To view videos of the bridge construction across Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, visit the Web at www.homernews.com.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.
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