By Joseph Robertia
When it comes to firsthand accounts of how bad the asphalt surface of North Cohoe Loop Road has become since being paved in 1986, Dorothy Hermansen’s tale is a tough one to beat, not that anyone would want to.
While driving into town from her mother’s house on Tri Road two years ago, she hit one of the long — some 1,000 feet or more in length — latitudinal cracks that snakes its way down the road’s surface near Webb Ramsell Road. It jerked the front wheel of her Ford Escape and sent her vehicle spinning violently into the ditch in a rollover accident. She suffered only minor injuries, but her car was totaled.
Hermansen shared this story Saturday, as did many others who have had close calls on Cohoe Loop Road, during a town meeting to discuss what could be done to get the road repaired to ensure the safety of everyone who travels on it, whether commuting daily to and from a home in the area or visiting one of the popular Kasilof River-area fisheries in the summer.
“Everyone is tired of dodging around the potholes and ruts in a fight to stay on the road,” said Gail Garcia, a Cohoe Loop resident who organized the meeting. “We want the whole road done and done properly.”
“It’s reached a point where it’s become dangerous,” added Leif Jenkinson. “It used to be cracks that could suck in a Schwinn bicycle tire, but now they’re the size of a full-size tire and can jerk a vehicle around.”
Jenkinson added that the pavement problem affects more than just Cohoe residents, and may even be caused, or at the very least exacerbated, by other roadway users in the area.
The personal-use gillnet and dip-net fisheries at the end of Cohoe Loop Road draw thousands of visitors in the summer months. Hundreds of sportfishing guides travel the road daily in the summer with boat trailers to pick up clients who have drifted to the Kasilof River’s mouth.
The Crooked Creek State Recreational Area off of Cohoe Loop Road is heavily utilized by tourists in RVs. Commercial fishing buying stations along the shores of Cook Inlet have numerous 18-wheelers loaded with the thousands of pounds of salmon using the road regularly. And dump trucks run to and from the many gravel pits in the area.
Carl High, the Kenai Peninsula superintendent for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, was in attendance, and he said DOT recognizes the need to do something with this road.
“I am very familiar with North Cohoe and it’s been at the top of my needs list for five years,” he said.
However, High added that as federal funding shrinks, it becomes more challenging to find money for repaving projects, particularly since DOT’s budget is currently in a deficit as a result of all the unexpected snow removal work done during this past record-breaking winter.
Adding to the situation, High said project funding is often diverted to the areas of greatest need based on population size, so while the Cohoe Loop area experiences a lot of summer traffic, it is still only a fraction of the road use seen in other areas of the state with more motorists.
“Two-thirds of the population lives in Anchorage or the Mat-Su, so we have to compete with these areas with thousands of people,” he said.
Cohoe resident Bob Dragich pointed out, though, that since “half of Anchorage comes down here for three months of the year, why can’t we get a third of their funds?”
High diverted the question of funding to state Rep. Mike Chenault, who was also in attendance at the meeting. Despite the two dozen concerned citizens who turned out for the meeting Saturday, Chenault said that he had not officially heard from anyone concerned about the matter since roughly this time last year.
Lack of concern from the majority of the public makes it difficult to find funds for these types of projects, he said, and cited the nearby Crooked Creek Road and Tustumena Lake Road paving as a contrast to what can be done when a majority of residents work toward a solution to a problem.
“Senator Wagoner and I worked and found money based on their determination, and we’ll do the same here. We’ll go back now and try to find the funds,” he said.
This likely will not be a quick process, though, even if funds can be immediately acquired — which isn’t likely, he said. Bids for the work would still need to go out, and the work itself would likely take more than one season to complete.
“It’ll be two to three years from when you get the money,” he said.
High added that the funds to completely rebuild Cohoe Loop Road, including rebuilding the foundation with the proper substrate, would be an expensive process and proposed to do a substantially — $750,000 — cheaper “quick fix” to the first three miles of the road this summer.
“This plan would take it from the Sterling Highway to roughly Webb Ramsell,” he said.
The existing asphalt surface will be pulverized roughly 6 inches down and recycled material will be used to provide a base material similar to a crushed aggregate. The road surface will then be reworked and finished with a double chip seal, with an emulsion sprayed on and rolled into place.
“We’re going to do what we can from the top, without ripping the whole thing down,” High said.
Tentatively, there will be an additional three miles of work done next year to complete miles three to six, which, combined with this summer’s work, will temporarily improve the whole road and give residents time to lobby their legislators for the full amount for a complete rebuild, which at last estimate came in at a cost of $7 million.
“This is as far as we can get with the money we have,” High said.