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.
ADOT has decided that just upgrading the existing road wouldn’t work. Certain sections are too pinched between steep slopes and the river. Various other routes have been investigated over the years, only to be rejected for engineering, environmental, financial and traffic issues.
“Usually, when you work in an area, there’s a very logical one or two routes that you can concentrate on and move forward with. This one, every different option had its positives and its negatives. It’s just a very difficult piece, and there’s no magic bullet,” Petersen said.
Last spring, a draft supplemental EIS was put out for public comment with five route plans, one being a no-build option where the road is just maintained as is. Of the other four, one would go south of the river, which would impact private land. The other three would stay north of the river. Two would cross Juneau Creek near Juneau Falls on the Resurrection Pass Trail over what would be the longest, clear-span bridge in Alaska, and rejoin the existing highway at Mile 55 or Mile 56. Both options encroach on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and federal wilderness area, not to mention the difficult construction and expense of the bridge.
That leaves the G South route, which was announced Friday as ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration’s preferred option.
“We’re kind of looking at G South as a compromise between the one alternative that goes to the south and the Juneau Creek alternative that has that large incursion into pristine wooded property out there,” Petersen said.
Of all the options, G South best avoids recreational trails, private property, cultural and archaeological sites, and refuge and federal wilderness lands.
It involves the shortest section of new highway — 5.5 miles — yet will cost the most, currently estimated between $250 million to $304 million, mostly due to the construction of three bridges. The funding split will be 90 percent from Federal Highway funds, with a 10 percent match from the state.
The project starts at Mile 45 on the eastern edge of Kenai Lake, at Quartz Creek Road at the Sunrise Café. The project will upgrade a little over a mile of the existing road to modern standards, with 12-foot lanes, 8-foot shoulders, roadside clearing for visibility and gentle, sweeping curves so traffic doesn’t have to slow to a 30-mph crawl, as it does where the current, narrow road snakes along a bluff above the lake.
The highway will leave the existing road and head north at about Mile 46.5, staying just north of most roads and private property in town.
It will cross the lower Bean Creek Trail (which serves as the snowmachine and winter access route to Resurrection Pass Trail), so the plan is to put a new trailhead and parking area west of Bean Creek.
The highway also will cross Slaughter Gulch Trail, which climbs a ridge behind Wildman’s convenience store. That encroachment is trickier to mitigate because the access to the trail is on private property. Petersen said DOT is planning to provide an underpass so hikers can cross the highway safely, and hopes that the Kenai Peninsula Borough will secure easements for the trail so a new, designated parking area could perhaps be provided.
“The deal with that trail, we knew about it but nobody owns it and it actually crosses some private property so it made things a bit awkward as far as encouraging an illegal trespass kind of thing,” Petersen said.
A bridge will be built over lower Juneau Creek, to the southeast of Resurrection Pass Trail, and the highway will cross back to the south of the Kenai River over a new bridge at about Mile 51.5, between Cooper Creek to the east and Gwin’s Lodge to the west. The existing highway will be rebuilt from there west, including the existing S curve just west of Gwin’s.
“That area will be pulled back from the river and it will be a broader, sweeping curve so it will definitely fix that problem at Gwin’s,” Petersen said.
The existing road crosses the Kenai River over the Schooner Bend bridge at Mile 53. A new bridge will be built a little south on that river bend, to accommodate widening and straightening the highway past Gwin’s. Traffic will use the existing bridge until the new one is built, at which time the existing bridge will be demolished.
The road rehabilitation will continue to Mile 58.2, just west of the intersection with Skilak Lake Road, including turning lanes to facilitate the heavy summer traffic trying to access trailheads, Sportsman’s Landing and other fishing and recreational hotspots.
Comments on the route are still being considered. A final alternative selection and the official Record of Decision should be issued in late 2016. From there, the design and engineering phase and right-of-way acquisition will begin, and construction could commence in 2018. Project completion is tentatively scheduled for 2023.
“It’s just wonderful seeing everybody’s eyes light up, ‘Wow, this is finally happening,’” Petersen said. “It’s great to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
For more information, visit www.sterlinghighway.net.