High speed limit slows discussion

Cooper Landing road options take new turn

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2001

A meeting intended to narrow down the route choices for a proposed bypass of a 15-mile stretch of Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing shifted gears Tuesday night, ending in a call for slower speeds in the area.

"This morning, I faxed a letter to (Department of Transportation) Commis-sioner Perkins asking him to cut the speed limit in this zone," said state Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, Wednesday. "There's no reason for there to be this much speeding through this area."

The current speed through the area varies between 35 and 55 mph, and members of a stakeholder group formed to choose the preferred bypass route want the speed limit no higher than 35 mph.

The stakeholders, which held their third meeting Tuesday night, are seeking an alternate route for the Sterling Highway between Mileposts 45 and 60 to alleviate concerns over speeding, seasonal traffic, sharp curves and pedestrian safety in the Cooper Landing area. The DOT, the lead organization of the group, intends to have a final route determined between the summer and fall of 2002 and begin construction in 2006.

Since its beginning, the group -- which includes DOT, the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Fish and Game, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Cooper Landing residents and property owners -- has identified nine alternative route sites stretching from as far north at the Juneau Creek Falls area to just along Russian River to the south.

The Sterling Highway is part of the National Highway System, but this particular section does not meet the NHS guidelines as do other parts of the highway. DOT project manager Miriam Tanaka explained that designing the new bypass to be consistent with other segments of the highway required it to be built to accommodate a level of speed some stakeholders were displeased with.

"Using these guidelines, design speed needs to be 60 miles per hour," Tanaka said. "It's really based on what the terrain is."

Tanaka said the speed design for the land between the mileposts applied to rolling terrain, or land with medium to low inclines and alternating flat and mountainous grading. Two other distinctions, flat terrain and mountainous terrain, are designated by 70- or 50-mph speeds, respectively.

"There's obviously this disconnection between the DOT and the stakeholders," said Michelle Wilson, of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "The community continues to say 'we need speed reduction.' It doesn't seem the DOT is providing any solutions."

Tanaka said meeting these guidelines is a prerequisite to qualify for federal funding for the project, which would cost between $40 million and $80 million.

"Our concern is that right now we have people driving 60 to 70 miles per hour," Wilson said. "And if you design it for 60, they're going to drive 80. (For) the amount of money that's going into planning, you could just put that into a trooper station."

Beyond the question of speeding in the area, the issue was raised with the effect on the river and wilderness area.

Mike Kania, a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, wondered how building a new road would affect wildlife at the northernmost option. He encouraged the stakeholders to consider the other alternatives.

"My greatest concern is for the Juneau Falls area," Kania said. "Those are very important wildlife areas. They could have adverse effects on natural resources and recreation."

Cooper Landing resident Jim Givins expressed concern about how construction could impact the river.

"I'm a landowner, and I'm restricted back 50 feet from the river," Givins said. "The Kenai River is very sensitive to the area. What will you be doing to the river when you're building it?"

He said he is prohibited from cutting trees within 50 feet of the river, but he recalled earlier road construction efforts that cut down a lot of riverside trees and left a lot of debris dumped near the river.

Attendance at Tuesday's meeting did not live up to organizer's expectations. Jamie Damon of JLA Inc., one of the consulting firms contracted by the DOT to plan and analyze road options, said she had expected more than the 30 people who showed up.

"We were anticipating 50 people or more," she said.

In order for the project to go through, all involved parties have to be in full agreement with any decisions made. Kania said his agency had particular interest in the outcome, but he was happy to see cooperation among all the interests.

"They will have to get a right of way from the national forests and wildlife system," Kania said. "To do that we want to make sure we minimize impacts to natural resources. I am pleased that they have more alternatives. At one point they only had one. It shows that they're looking at the problems and trying to come up with some solutions."

Damon distributed sample criteria to the attendees to spur conversation at each of the six tables in the room that would lead to a list of community-driven criteria.

Each group compiled a list of ideas that she would use to come up with one master preliminary evaluation criteria list. Once the master list is completed, Damon will either mail or e-mail it out to stakeholders and meeting attendees. Stakehold-ers will then review the final list and begin applying them at the next meeting.

The next meeting will be held Jan. 16. The location has not been determined.

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