By Jenny Neyman
A trip through Cooper Landing is like driving back in time. Other than some repaving and filled potholes, the road hasn’t been upgraded since the Sterling Highway was completed in 1950, and it shows. Tight S curves with little visibility cling to hillsides and wind just above Kenai Lake and the Kenai River. Narrow lanes crowd big trucks, and the shoulders could be measured with rulers, not tape measures.
“Sometimes you can see the fog line on the outside of the lane that’s actually painted on gravel,” said Kelly Petersen, project manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Though the road hasn’t been upgraded in 65 years, traffic and its associated problems continue to increase. From 2000 to 2009, ADOT recorded 303 crashes between Mileposts 45 and 60, with 153 in the winter and 150 in the summer.
“Anyone that’s driven through this piece of highway, you know immediately when you’re at Milepost 45 because there’s no clear zones, there’s no shoulder, you’re more white-knuckled. And this is the place that everybody wants to be for the world-class experience of fishing,” Petersen said.
Yet a fix has been a long time coming. ADOT started working on an Environmental Impact Statement for a highway upgrade in the early 1980s, but for a longer stretch of the road — from Milepost 37 east of Cooper Landing, closer to the junction with the Seward Highway, to Milepost 60, west of the intersection with Skilak Lake Road. The project got split in two, with an upgrade of miles 37 to 45 being completed in 2001. The rest has been on the to-do list for so long that the original EIS has become the oldest environmental document for a highway project in the country.
But while the need for a safer road has been obvious, a solution has not.
“This project is in a unique place because it’s right next to Kenai Lake and the Kenai River, it’s a critical area with great salmon runs that are world famous. So, working between that and fairly steep terrain. And then, of course, we’ve got a wilderness area plus multiple trailheads, and there’s also cultural sites — archaeological and otherwise. So it’s definitely a challenging place to build,” said Shannon McCarthy, ADOT spokesperson.
Any one of those challenges can be a significant hurdle to a highway project. And in this case, the challenges kept coming.
“There’s just been a lot of changes in the corridor, both in traffic, the formation of (the Kenai River Special Management Area), the identification of selection properties under (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act). The whole issue is, this is a complex piece,” Petersen said.