By Jenny Neyman
There are still far more questions than answers about the proposed AK LNG project and its potential terminus facility in Nikiski. But of the many unknowns, one thing, at least, was certain Monday — the route driven by the more than 100 attendees of a community meeting at the Nikiski Recreation Center will not be the same road driven in four or five years if the project does happen.
The Nikiski facility as it’s currently envisioned lies right on top of the Kenai Spur Highway.
“When we are looking where plant site is, the highway does bisect that and that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So we’d like to look at options of redirecting that traffic and redirecting the major road that goes through this area in a safe manner,” said Lydia Johnson, technical manager for the AK LNG project.
The facility will need around 700 to 800 acres, she said. The current design places it between about Industrial Avenue south to Robert Walker Avenue and from the bluff east to about McCaughey Street. That puts it right on top of the Kenai Spur Highway as it parallels the bluff between its intersections with North and South Miller Loops.
Project managers are working with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, federal highway managers and the Kenai Peninsula Borough to look at how to relocate the road, and want public input, as well. To that end, an open house was held Monday evening to provide information on the project, answer questions and collect feedback. As with previous meetings AK LNG has held in Nikiski, this one got a sizable turnout.
“Hopefully the message has gotten out that we’ve just really started in this process and we really want to hear feedback and comments from the people that live here and are going to have to live with this road,” Johnson said. “So we want to make sure that gets stewed into our designs and into all of our considerations, as well, so we’re thrilled that there are this many people here.”
Large-scale maps showing the various reroute options were displayed around the room with sticky notes provided so people could write and affix their observations, preferences and concerns. The new section would be posted with a 55 mph speed limit and have two, 12-foot travel lanes with a 12-foot turning lane to ease the additional traffic to the LNG facility, 8-foot shoulders and a 12-foot multiuse pathway separated from the road.
Eleven highlighted route options crisscross the map. Most turn inland around South Miller Loop and head north either between Cabin Lake and the AK LNG site or along the eastern side of Cabin Lake. They connect back to the existing highway route in a variety of options — including along North Miller Loop, south and north of Bernice Lake, near Foreland Street and along Island Lake Road.
It’s a bit of a spaghetti bowl, Johnson concedes, because nothing has been ruled out yet. Options will be whittled down based on several factors — community input, regulatory requirements, acquisition of land parcels and environmental concerns, among many others.
“And it will depend on what the geometry will look like and what the water looks like and what the geology looks like of the roads and then, ultimately, how our site lays out, as well,” Johnson said. “We still haven’t finalized that either. You have to be certain distances from different things for air emission and noise and all of that stuff. So it’s all a big puzzle that we’re putting together, so that’s why all those options are out there.”
The facility layout is the driver of the road route, and the plant design hasn’t yet been finalized. The project is currently nearing the end of the feasibility phase. Next will be the engineering phase, where designs will be settled. Somewhere in that phase the decision will be made whether or not to go ahead. AK LNG doesn’t want to start the roadwork before it knows for sure the project is a go, but if the project gets the green light, the road relocation needs to be ready to commence so it’s completed before plant construction starts.
“When we’re building our plant we really want to make sure that we’re separating the construction traffic from just the normal traffic,” Johnson said.
That timeline likely wouldn’t happen if the reroute were left up to the state’s lengthy highway project prioritization and funding process, so AK LNG is taking on — and funding — the project itself. Its projected timeline is to study options and collect data through 2016, finalize the design, obtain right-of-ways, permits and authorization and complete the bidding process in 2017, start construction in 2018 and finish in 2019, with ADOT, borough and community involvement throughout.
AK LNG providing the money buys it some leeway in determining the timeline of the project but doesn’t give it a blank check in how the new road is built. It will still be a public highway, so the reroute must be built to ADOT standards.
“There’s definitely some regulatory oversight and we have a lot of rules we need to follow,” Johnson said. “It’s a federal highway so they’re involved. DOT is involved. There’s definitely still some more red tape we’ve to cut through. But the good news is we’re doing it together so as long as we’ve all got objectives that are aligned, then we’ll work through it. And there are so many options to work through we’ll find the right one.”
Johnson said that AK LNG also wants the road to meet the community’s wishes. Another poster at the meeting showed a laundry list of identified issues under consideration to try to avoid or at least minimize potential impacts — bald eagle nests, wetlands, neighborhoods, cultural and recreational sites, local traffic patterns, private property utility connections, bluff erosion and maintaining through traffic during the plant construction phase.
“We want to be good neighbors and we’re going to be here for a long time,” Johnson said. “This plant will be operating for 30-plus years. Construction will just be a very short little phase of this thing. And then we want to make sure that we’ve done the right thing so that’s really important for us.”
Terry Dilley and John Jungling were taking a wait-and-see stance at the meeting. Both live near Salamatof Lake, a little south and inland of the proposed project area, and while they say they’re pro development, they’re not yet sure whether they’re pro this development.
“I think development is good and that we’re in the right area for it — this is an industrial area, it’s the perfect place for it. (I have) a little bit of concerns on how it’s going to go forward and, tonight, which way this road is going to go,” Jungling said. “I think the larger issue right now is total cost with the least amount of impact of how many homes we’re going to lose and how it’s going to impact people that will be living along these right of ways. … Right now there’s just way too many options they’re presenting.”
Dilley didn’t have a preference among options A through L on the map — there were too many and not enough information on each. It’s too early in the process to tell, he said.
“This is the first time we’re really aware of the various options that they’re considering so I really haven’t processed what’s likely to be most advantageous. … We’ll have traffic issues, of course. The construction phase will impact us as far as all the traffic and all the rerouting of the roads, but at this point we don’t know enough to really make a good decision,” he said.
Jungling prefers options that move the road away from the crumbling bluff. He also would prefer to see something not currently pictured.
“I’m a little concerned, because the project is going to increase traffic dramatically, why they’re not looking at a secondary option, like improving the Escape Route as a secondary path to the project. That’s not presented here or even shown that they even considered it,” Jungling said.
Other people left their comments on notes stuck to the map. Some were fairly detailed: “Routes near lakes would forever compromise the serenity and beauty that folks who purchased lake lots sought when building their homes,” one said. And “Intersection of Alexander-Ross Pipeline has a hill that would be needing to be taken out on Island Lake Road.”
Others were simpler: “We like H to J best, F to J next.” And, “Floods,” with an arrow pointing to a proposed section along Island Lake. Others just read, “No.”
The responses will be collated and added to the pot as the process continues.
“All of those things get stewed in, and listening to people that talk about, ‘Have you considered this or, ‘I really would like you to look at this.’ That’s just all going to be part of it,” Johnson said.
Anyone wanting to sign up to be on the email list for updates on the project can do so by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.