Not doing anything not an option for highway project

Editorial

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2003

Highway planners working on a solution to the section of the Sterling Highway that goes through Cooper Landing from milepost 45 to 60 need a dose of Solomon's wisdom.

How do they build a road that gets people from Point A to Point B as safely and efficiently as possible while preserving the unique lifestyle and economic livelihoods of those who live in Cooper Landing? How do they build a new road and still show concern for bears and wildlife habitat, as well as protect popular recreational, historical and archaeological areas particularly when those areas have such value to residents and visitors alike? How do they convince people that minor upgrades to the existing road don't solve the problems?

It may not be Mission Impossible, but it's pretty close.

Each of the three routes down from as many as 10 now proposed has major drawbacks, but not nearly as many as some of the earlier alternatives that were dropped because they had far too many strikes against them. Remember the Kenai River Walls Alternative?

The three routes now under consideration still have the potential to displace and disrupt wildlife. There could be damage to wilderness lands and popular recreation areas. Historical and archaeological sites would be affected. There are engineering challenges. New bridges are required. Not to mention the cost the least expensive right now is $70 million or the challenges of dealing with multiple landholders.

Each of the three options, however, has one great advantage: They all are better than doing nothing.

It would be easy to say the best option, at least the cheapest option, is to do nothing until a catastrophe of such a great magnitude occurred that everyone would realize the folly of not moving forward on a new route.

Increasingly, it's becoming clear that doing nothing really is no option at all.

The problems now faced on the existing highway will only get worse with time. If there were an easy fix, it probably would have been done a long time ago, since discussions about this portion of the Sterling Highway have been going on since at least the late 1970s.

The simple fact is this section of the Sterling Highway is being asked to do too much. For residents of Cooper Landing, it's the local road that gets them from their house to the post office. In some respects, it's like a subdivision road with driveways branching off the highway.

It's also a major commercial route, the only road connecting parts of the Kenai Peninsula with the rest of the state, as well as a major tourism and recreation route that serves everyone from anglers and rafters to visitors in RVs.

Highway planners emphasize the road is part of the national highway system, and it currently is incapable of serving all its users.

Built in the 1930s, this section of the Sterling Highway is the only part that has not been upgraded to widen shoulders, add passing lanes, improve sight distances and reduce sharp curves. And that's part of the problem. On either side of this portion of the highway, drivers can cruise along at a pretty good clip fairly safely en route to their destination. When they hit this part of the highway, they can't keep up their pace although many of them try. They pass where they have no business passing, go at speeds they have no business going and, in general, make a dangerous road even more dangerous by their ridiculous driving habits.

It's worth noting that two-thirds of the drivers on this stretch of highway want to go to points beyond Cooper Landing, and most of them are not interested in slowing down for the scenic route through Cooper Landing.

Meetings will be held later this winter or in early spring to discuss the alternatives the Cooper Creek route, the Juneau "F" Wilderness route and the "G" South route in more detail and examine any opportunities to tweak the routes to make them more acceptable.

It's a discussion that all Kenai Peninsula residents should participate in. A special insert updating the project was included in Friday's Peninsula Clarion and also has been sent to residents of Cooper Landing and others who are on the project's mailing list. In addition, people can find information on the Web site: www.sterlinghighway.net.

In the final analysis, the preferred alternative likely will be a matter of the lesser evils. No one solution will make everyone happy, but it is important that everyone is aware of all the impacts of the various routes.



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