The state of Alaska has narrowed down to four its list of possible alternatives for the Sterling Highway Milepost 45-60 project, a long-awaited and controversial plan to redesign the highway through Cooper Landing.
Planners for the state attended a Kenai River Special Management Advisory Board meeting Thursday to provide the board with an update on the project. The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' Miriam Tanaka, project manager, told the board the project has come a long way since earlier this year, when as many as 10 new routes through the Kenai River valley were proposed.
"We've narrowed it down to about three alternatives," Tanaka said.
The new routes will be included in a supplemental draft environmental impact statement (SDEIS) the state is working on. In addition, a fourth, "no-build" alternative will be included in the SDEIS.
According to Mark Dalton, project manager with HDR Alaska, the company contracted to complete the SDEIS, the alternatives were arrived upon after holding numerous open houses and public meetings about the project. As a result of the meetings, as well as public comments received by the state, Dalton said HDR was able to whittle down the number of possible routes.
"We identified what were reasonable alternatives we wanted to carry into the supplemental draft," Dalton said.
The three alternatives set to be included in the SDEIS are known as the Cooper Creek alternative, the G South alternative and the Juneau Creek F Wilderness alternative.
The Cooper Creek and G South alternatives call for the most improvements to the existing roadway. The main difference between the two is that the Cooper Creek route would veer south of the existing road after crossing the Cooper Landing bridge at Kenai Lake.
In contrast, the G South alternative calls for the road to skip the Cooper Landing bridge and continue along the Kenai River Valley on the north side of the river until meeting back up with the existing highway after crossing the Kenai River below Cooper Creek.
Finally, the Juneau Creek F Wilderness alternative would swing even further to the north, crossing Juneau Creek below the Juneau Creek Falls. The highway would not return to the existing route until just below the Russian River, meaning the Kenai River would not be crossed.
All of the routes have their advantages and disadvantages, according to information provided by DOT at Thursday's meeting.
For instance, the Juneau Creek alternative would cost the least and likely improve traffic flow the most, but it also would impact the most wilderness. The Cooper Creek and G South alternatives, which both call for more bridge improvements, would cost more and impact wilderness less but also would likely result in less free flow of traffic than the Juneau Creek route.
The project has been debated for several years now, and none of the proposed alternatives have re-ceived significant backing from the public. Since whatever route is chosen would have a wide variety of impacts on Cooper Landing residents as well as area wildlife, Dalton said there really is no consensus from the public on how to proceed. However, doing nothing is not practical, because the existing two-lane highway simply does not meet current traffic needs, he said.
"We're trying to provide a section of highway that's consistent with the work that has taken place on either side of the Sterling Highway," he said.
Board members Thursday wondered why the state simply can't make improvements to the existing road, without a major redesign project that likely will impact the area's wilderness and cost between $70 and $92 million.
"I'm just interested in the least impact to the area as possible," said board member Paul Shadura.
Dalton said both HDR and the state are aware of concerns about the project and tried to find alternatives that would impact the area the least.
"We have heard quite a bit from people like yourself who depend on the river," Dalton told Shadura, a commercial fisher.
However, Dalton said the highway is the only road between the Kenai Peninsula and the rest of the state, and the current road is simply not up to par.
"The important thing to keep in mind is this is part of the federal highway system," Dalton said.
He pointed out that the project will be funded by the federal government, which has a keen interest in making sure its highway system meets certain standards. For that reason, doing nothing is not an option.
"This road has a pretty amazing challenge to bear all its different uses," Dalton said. "It's a pretty big deal."
He said there is no set time frame for when the project will be completed. His best guess, he said, is that the SDEIS will be completed this winter, with a final draft to be released in late 2004.
"The intent is to have a final document during the winter of 2004-05 so we have a decision in early 2005," he said.
In the meantime, the state and HDR will work with the public to further educate them on the proposed alternatives.
Dalton said the state plans to release a newsletter on the project soon in order to "update people on what we've been doing and where we are."
In addition, he said the state operates an Internet Web site at www.sterlinghighway.net, where people can find information on the project.
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