Upgrade to Sterling Highway nears completion

Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2000

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- An eight-mile upgrade to a stretch of the Sterling Highway bordering sensitive salmon habitat is finally wrapping up, two years late and overbudget.

The work in a canyon-like valley in the Kenai Mountains descends steeply to Tern Lake. Five species of spawning salmon and Dolly Varden char in two creeks appear to have survived such close proximity to bulldozers, dump trucks and the blasting of nearby cliffs, state officials say.

The result is a straighter and wider highway with more passing lanes. It went from 10-foot lanes with minimal shoulders to 12-foot lanes and six-foot shoulders. A bridge spanning one of the creeks also was widened.

Apart from some rain-triggered gully washers, few infractions were reported, said Stewart Seaberg, a state fish habitat biologist. And with so many avid anglers driving the road every day, the state had thousands of unofficial observers this summer.

''If they noticed muddy water in Quartz Creek, I think we would have heard about it,'' Seaberg said. ''The lack of complaints, I think, is testament to the erosion control work.''

Improving the roadway, a narrow strip that winds along steep, muddy bluffs and cliffs on one side and swampy wetlands draining into the fish creeks on the other side, proved more challenging than engineers thought, said Pat Wittrock, the state's project manager.

The state employed filter fabric and settling ponds to prevent too much muddy runoff from ruining the streams.

The project wound up costing $11.5 million, instead of the budgeted $9.5 million, Wittrock said. The extra costs stem from carving out more of the moisture-laden hillsides and unstable cliff faces to protect the roadway, he said. The project also had to dig farther into its Quartz Creek gravel pit to get the proper grade of fill, he said.

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