Highway route alternatives narrow

Posted: Thursday, July 03, 2003

State highway planners are closing in on a decision as to which of several alternative routes should be selected to replace a torturous 15-mile stretch of the Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing.

But while the tedious but necessary process of gathering public comment, pouring over preliminary engineering studies, and considering the complications attending those routing alternatives goes on, one thing appears clear, said Miriam Tanaka, project manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities: "There is no 'good' solution," she said. "You are having impacts no matter where it's put. Not doing anything has impacts. It will make a fair number of people unhappy no matter where we come out on this one. "

The project envisions rebuilding the Sterling Highway between Miles 45 and 60. The current route runs along the banks of the Kenai River and serves as Cooper Landing's business area main street.

Traffic congestion, frequent accidents and the potential for ecological damage to the river itself are among a list of reasons why the roadway should be rerouted.

A survey conducted last year demonstrated how hard that might be. None of the nine alternatives could be said to have curried much favor with the public. Indeed, while it could be said each appealed to some portion of the 230 people who answered the online survey, each also garnered an "unacceptable" rating by wide majorities.

"I don't know that we have heard anything appreciatively different since," said Mark Dalton, team leader for HDR Alaska Inc., compiling the Environmental Impact Statement under contract with DOT.

The alternatives that have been presented to the public include routes on the south side of the river valley, through Cooper Landing itself and also on the valley's north side.

Generally, he said, people seem to dislike south side routes the most.

"People either want something through town or on the north side," he said.

"There is very little support for the south side of the valley. People either like the Juneau Creek alternatives (north side) a lot or they dislike them. Those who dislike the north side recommend something through town. "

One alternative, called the Kenai River Walls alternative, would require realigning the current road to move it back from a section of the river. Planners are now leaning away from that route, however, because of costly, if not insurmountable technical problems, namely having to move more than 1.5 million cubic yards of material at great cost and put it somewhere, which would leave walls up to 180 feet tall along the side of the highway.

"We looked around the world for some wall that tall," Tanaka said. "We didn't really find any. We found some tall ones, but not built in arctic conditions."

"We found some in stable granite," Dalton said.

That's a far cry from the "marginal material" making up the hillsides through which the walls alternative would have to cut, he said.

Dalton and Tanaka said they are still awaiting further comments from state and federal resource agencies before proceeding further. One, the Environmental Protection Agency, has asked for more dialogue with state planners. Then it will be a matter of finding the reasonable alternatives and eliminating those that won't work. That should be done in the next month or so, Tanaka said.

Even then the complexities won't disappear, and finding a route to satisfy everyone may be a pipe dream.

Dalton said there are those who value the Kenai River and see it as the single most important local asset. For them, moving the road away is primary. But for others, there is the danger of causing environmental damage by cutting into now pristine areas, including around the Resurrection Trail. Still others see moving the highway away from Cooper Landing as a detriment to business.

But doing nothing is problematic as well. First, the existing road is dangerous, and accidents are common, often involving large trucks that sometimes carry dangerous materials hazardous to the river.

"It's amazing to me how many accidents there are in that existing corridor," Dalton said. "If we try to do something in the existing corridor, we would have to take an awful lot of right of way. There is no one alternative that is wonderful that solves all the problems."

The project is difficult precisely because of the varying needs. The same highway that serves as the main road for local residents and business traffic also serves as the main line between the Kenai Peninsula and the rest of Southcentral Alaska. Further, it is the route used by huge amounts of truck traffic vital to commerce, and, especially at this time of year, a stampede of tourists.

"It's one road trying to be a lot of things to a lot of different users, " Dalton said.

Finding answers to the dilemma largely has been what the past couple of years have been about, he said.

"Right now, we are working through the process, narrowing down alternatives," Tanaka said, adding that they are trying to do that in a fair manner that complies with regulations.

Tanaka said recent state budget cuts are not now an issue with regards to progress on the project.

"But things could change," she said.

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