Cooper Landing road redesign rolls along

Environmental impact statement on Sterling Highway alternatives due out this spring

Posted: Friday, December 23, 2005

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities road designers expect to begin soliciting comments by spring on four alternatives for the future of a 13-mile stretch of the Sterling Highway that follows the meandering Kenai River through Cooper Landing.

That’s when a draft environmental impact statement outlining the pros and cons of three reconstruction alternatives plus a fourth that would leave the highway unchanged is due for release, DOT Project Manager Miriam McCulloch said Monday.

The project’s design funding, which amounts to around $2 million, was not affected by recent changes to the department’s Statewide Transportation improvement Program (STIP) list, McCulloch said.

Earlier this year many projects were purged, including some on the Kenai Peninsula, when it appeared large sums of federal dollars were to be earmarked for the Knik Arm and Gravina bridge projects. Congress dropped the earmarks and the state may look at returning some excised projects to the list.

“Our funding did not change and we are writing the draft EIS that we expect will be out by early spring,” McCulloch said. The public comment period will commence once the EIS is released.

A design phase will take some 18 months and be followed by right of way acquisition, which could take anywhere from one to two years, she said.

“Construction wouldn’t be until 2010 at the earliest,” she said.

The project began with 11 alternatives, a list since whittled down to four. The draft EIS is expected to include a DOT preference for one of the four alternatives, McCulloch said. She declined to say which way DOT was leaning at this time.

The four alternatives are named the Cooper Creek Alternative, the “G” South Alternative, the Juneau Creek “F” Wilderness Alternative, and the “no-build” alternative.

Descriptions of the alternatives are taken from DOT project documents available at the department’s Web site.

· The Cooper Creek Alternative would follow the existing Sterling Highway alignment except for a 3.5-mile section through Cooper Landing. It would include replacing the Cooper Landing Bridge and the Schooner Bend Bridge.

At Snug Harbor Road, this alternative would turn south, climb a hillside for about a mile, then descend crossing Cooper Creek Canyon with a 650-foot bridge. McCulloch said that bridge would be a curving structure. This route would rejoin the existing highway at about Mile 51.3.

The existing portion between Mile 52 and Mile 58 would be upgraded to reduce curves, widen shoulders, improve sight distance, widen clear zones or place guardrails where the terrain won’t allow for sufficient widening. (Some degree of upgrades would be part of all the alternatives).

The cost of the Cooper Creek alternative is estimated at $40 million to $60 million. Public comments have included concerns about impacts to trails and private property, noise and a reduction of commerce in Cooper Landing. About 65 percent of the traffic would be moved out of the Cooper Landing community area by this alternative.

· The Juneau Creek “F” Wilderness Alternative would create a new corridor north of the existing roadway, DOT documents say. It would depart the existing corridor at Mile 46.3 and climb the hillside to Juneau Creek, crossing the Juneau Creek Canyon about a half mile below the falls with a 730-foot bridge. The road would reach a maximum elevation of 1,160 feet before dropping to the valley and rejoining the existing road at Mile 55.6 west of Sportsman’s Landing.

This alternative would require construction of nine miles of new road and a bridge at Juneau Creek and cost an estimated $74 million. It would require acquisition of four properties for rights of way and impact seven historic or archaeological sites. It also would cross Resurrection Pass Trail. Concerns have included visual impacts and impacts to wildlife, as well as those of moving traffic away from town.

· The “G” South Alternative also would use a new corridor north of the existing roadway between Miles 46.3 and 51.6. At 46.3 it would climb the hillside for about 2 miles and then traverse the south side of a small hill following the path of an existing logging road. It would climb again until it reached an elevation of 780 feet before descending to a 1,300-foot bridge across Juneau Creek Canyon. This alternative also would include a 500-foot bridge over the Kenai River.

It would entail 6 miles of new road and 7.5 miles of improvements and include three bridges (Juneau and Bean creeks and the Kenai River) and replacement of the Schooner Bend Bridge. Construction is estimated at $104 million.

Four properties would be needed for rights of way, and it would impact 17 historic or archaeological sites. Concerns include visual impacts, impacts to the river and wildlife habitats and the economic impacts of moving traffic out of Cooper Landing.

· The no-build alternative would leave the existing highway alone to be maintained as usual. Bridges would be replaced under the existing DOT replacement schedule, but within 20 years.

Reasons for not choosing the no-build alternative include the highly congested traffic patterns between May and September. Statistics show that as congestion increases, so do accidents, and the no-build alternative would lead to further congestion.

McCulloch said the terrain around Cooper Landing presents road engineers with many challenges. The river, town, environmental impacts and private as well as public property concerns are all important issues, she said.

“We are working pretty hard at it,” she said.

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