Drive for safety — Project to improve Sterling Highway’s deadly reputation

File photo. An RV leads a string of traffic into Soldotna on the Sterling Highway over Memorial Day weekend. Traffic on the stretch of highway from the Moose River to Soldotna sees a sharp increase during fishing season, contributing to the road’s danger of traffic collisions. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is considering options to improve safety along that section of road.

File photo. An RV leads a string of traffic into Soldotna on the Sterling Highway over Memorial Day weekend. Traffic on the stretch of highway from the Moose River to Soldotna sees a sharp increase during fishing season, contributing to the road’s danger of traffic collisions. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is considering options to improve safety along that section of road.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Ted Forsi, of Sterling, has been a lifelong hunter, but says the two largest moose he’s ever taken weren’t brought down by a rifle or bow.

“The two biggest I ever got I took with my Chevy Suburban,” he said during a public meeting held Dec. 10 by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to discuss its ongoing Sterling Highway Safety Corridor Study.

Running from Mile 82.5 in Sterling to Mile 94 in Soldotna (roughly from the Moose River bridge to Fred Meyer), this area was designated in 2009 as one of five highway safety corridors in the state due to the higher crash rates and crash severities experienced along this section of the Sterling Highway.

“There were 721 crashes on the Sterling Highway between the Kenai Spur Highway and the Moose River Bridge from 2000 to 2010,” said study project team member Ron Martindale, a traffic analyst for Kinney Engineering.

Of those 721 crashes, 579 of them occurred on the two-way, two-lane portion between Fred Meyer and the Sterling weigh station. Twenty-eight percent of these accidents were moose related, with 80 percent occurring at night.

This brought up what, for many, seemed to be the most logical way to resolve the issue — installing more street lights to increase visibility.

“Illumination is the key,” said Ross Baxter, of Soldotna. “We’d love to see some lights from Soldotna to Robinson Loop.”

Baxter added that not only would this make the highway safer by making it easier to see moose and other wildlife crossing the roadway, but also would reduce the need for people to mount ultrabright, aftermarket lights to their vehicles, which raise concern of accidents by blinding oncoming drivers.

Mary Helminski, who lives off of Jim Dahler Road, agreed with Baxter.

“A light put in at our intersection really made a difference,” she said.

While the need for more street lights was acknowledged by Martindale as a viable option for moose mitigation, in particular, he said that the cost might be outside the state’s budget.

“DOT has said the lights can be put in, but they lack the funds to maintain them,” he said.

Dennis Linnell, principal civil engineer with Hattenburg Dilley and Linnell Engineering, added that state maintenance funding has been flat since 1985.

Moose collisions, while making up the largest percentage of collisions in that stretch of road, still only account for a portion of the overall accidents. People looking up to see a stopped school bus, a driver slowing to look at a moose and the increase of vehicles during peak fishing season lead to other types of accidents in this corridor.

File photo. Wildlife sightings along the Sterling Highway between Sterling and Soldotna, such as this caribou near Pace Street, can cause dangerous traffic situations when cars pull onto the shoulder to look at moose, caribou or other animals.

File photo. Wildlife sightings along the Sterling Highway between Sterling and Soldotna, such as this caribou near Pace Street, can cause dangerous traffic situations when cars pull onto the shoulder to look at moose, caribou or other animals.

According to DOT statistics, after moose-related crashes, the second-highest cause is rear-end collisions, representing 27 percent of crashes. Other crash causes are ran-off-the-road (such as into a ditch or overturning in an embankment) at 12 percent, and sideswipes at 4 percent.

In an effort to address as many of the safety concerns as possible, the project team presented potential design alternatives for this section of highway, derived with input from elected and municipal officials, state and federal agencies and the public collected since July. The six alternatives are:

  • Alternative A: Four-lane divided highway with a depressed median.
  • Alternative B-1: Four-lane divided highway with a two-way left-turn lane or urban-style raised concrete median.
  • Alternative B-2: Four-lane divided highway with a two-way left-turn lane, rural-style (without a raised concrete median).
  • Alternative C: Two-lane divided highway with a depressed median.
  • Alternative D: Two-lane divided highway with alternating passing lanes every 1 to 1.5 miles.
  • Alternative E: Four-lane divided highway with a raised, “F-shape” concrete crash barrier.

“A four-lane divided highway provides the greatest safety benefit by physically separating opposing lanes of traffic and is the preferred solution,” Martindale said, although he added that other solutions will be considered.

The project is being funded by the state through a general fund appropriation, but Martindale added that costs for each alternative have not yet been determined since, he said, “Some alternatives may still drop out after these public hearings.”

In addition to the highway itself, consideration also is being given to alternatives for pedestrian pathways along the road. Several people at the meeting said this is nearly as important as the roadwork.

Forsi said that he was an engineer in Anchorage during the 1970s when many of the now-popular bike and ski trails were being considered.

“At the time, there were many who thought they were a waste, but now people flock to them,” he said.

As such, he said that trails — potentially even connecting to the Unity Trail between Soldotna and Kenai — should be considered. Children riding bikes to and from a proposed new middle school in the area was also brought up, as was the fact that most bikers and joggers currently utilize the shoulder of the road, just feet from cars traveling 55 mph or faster.

Alternatives include an urban sidewalk or a multiuse pathway with minimum or optimum separation. The minimum amount of separation between the highway and a multiuse path is 10 feet.

Jeanne Bowie, traffic and safety analyst with Kinney Engineering, said the proposed roadwork should be adequate for nearly the next 30 years.

“Analysis of historical traffic volumes on the Sterling Highway, local and historical population and forecasted population growth resulted in a predicted traffic growth rate of this corridor of 1 percent per year, or a 30 percent increase in traffic by 2040,” she said.

Currently, this section of road sees an average of 15,000 vehicles per day, she added. If nothing is done, vehicle accidents are expected to rise to 22 percent more annual crashes between 2031 and 2040 than between 2000 and 2010, according to DOT. The Sterling Highway’s average annual fatal accident rate between 2000 and 2012 was 3.28, much higher than the statewide rate of 1.60 and the national rate of 1.37.

All alternatives can be viewed at http://www.sterlinghwy.com and comments are still being sought. The next step will be to draft the preliminary decision document by February 2014, the final preliminary decision document by April and a preliminary engineering report by February 2015. Construction is tentatively scheduled for 2018, funding dependent.

Leave a comment

Filed under public safety, transportation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s