Delegation, Walker want new route around Cooper Landing
Alaska’s congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Walker have once again joined forces to fight a federal agency decision, this time demanding a new route be chosen for diverting the Sterling Highway around Cooper Landing.
Walker, Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan sent a joint letter July 18 to the secretaries of the Agriculture, Interior and Transportation departments urging them to select an alignment that would take the Sterling Highway farther north of Cooper Landing than the path chosen in December 2015.
Then, the Federal Highway Administration, an arm of DOT, selected the “G South” alternative as its preferred option, with input from the state Department of Transportation. The G South option would add about 5.5 miles of new road to the north of the town but avoid the popular Resurrection Pass Trail and Mystery Creek Wilderness area in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which the highway bisects.
The G South route is estimated to cost about $250 million.
The governor and the delegation — with the support of many, but not all on the Peninsula — want to go with the Juneau Creek alternative, which would add 10 miles of new road but cost less at $205 million, according to the draft supplemental environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the project.
They contend the Juneau Creek route provides better protection for the Kenai River and its sought-after trout and salmon because it pulls more of the highway away from the river, thus reducing the likelihood of tanker truck spills or other potential hazards damaging the river.
They wrote that the Federal Highway Administration “appears to inexplicably undervalue” the opportunities for protecting fish and wildlife habitat and additional recreational opportunities the Juneau Creek route provides.
“Alaskans and many others, representing a diverse array of interests and concerns, agree that the best route for a (Cooper Landing) bypass is the Juneau Creek alternative,” the letter states. “It will run 1.5 miles north of Kenai Lake, so it will not require any construction delays or new bridges crossing the rivers and will protect salmon and other key ecosystem drivers from most sediment and runoff.”
The Alaska leaders also noted that a way around the small town has been sought since the late 1970s, and all the information gathered since should have steered the administration to a different conclusion.
Their letter was sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue because the Sterling Highway project would impact the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Chugach National Forest.
The transportation agencies are on the third iteration of an EIS for the project since 1982.
Despite requiring less new road, the G South route is more expensive because it would require a new bridge across the Kenai River — for a total of three river crossings in the area — and reconstructing the existing Schooner Bend Bridge at the west end of the project.
The Juneau Creek option would not require any additional construction over the Kenai, but would necessitate a bridge over Juneau Creek that would be the longest single-span bridge in the state, according to the Alaska DOT.
Each of the alternatives would reconstruct portions of the existing highway on each end of the corridor as well.
A Dec. 11, 2015, Alaska DOT press release announcing the G-South route as the preferred alternative cited the fact that it would avoid the Resurrection Pass Trail and Juneau Falls while minimizing impacts to the refuge as reasons for its selection.
The senators, Walker and Young considered crossing and rerouting a short section of the Resurrection Pass Trail to be another access point to provide additional recreational opportunities.
A ranging contingent of 19 Kenai Peninsula local governments and interest groups signed on to a four-page October 2016 letter from Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre submitted as public comments to the draft supplemental EIS supporting the Juneau Creek option.
City leaders of Homer, Kenai and Soldotna along with local conservation groups, Alaska Native organizations and chambers of commerce also signed the letter sent from the borough offices.
It describes similar concerns to those held by Walker and the congressional delegation about how the project has been evaluated, but argues the G South option is not the safest for drivers and those recreating in the area, either.
“In addition to inadequately protecting the Kenai River corridor, (the) G South alternative does not meet the stated purpose and need as well as the Juneau Creek alternatives. While G South does bypass Cooper Landing proper, it fails to bypass Segment 5 (MP 51.3-55.09), the section of the project with the highest crash rate cited in the (draft supplemental EIS),” the Kenai commenters contend. “This area, particularly the segment between the Russian River Ferry entrance and Russian River Campground, is a frequently congested area with multiple parked vehicles and pedestrians along the road during peak summer fishing season.”
Improving the existing road to modern design standards along the specified stretch would not alleviate the risk of pedestrian-vehicle collisions, the groups assert.
“Many fishermen will continue to travel along and cross this section of the road, and the higher traffic speeds may increase the potential severity of an accident if it does occur,” the letter states further.
FHA spokesman Doug Hecox said the agency has made its preferred route known but would consider the additional comments and keep all the options on the table as long as the EIS is open.
A record of decision on the project is expected early next year.
Alaska DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said the state provided input on the project but the route decision is ultimately made by its federal counterparts, as a vast majority of the funding for the road work would be federal money.
“It doesn’t hurt to take a second look,” McCarthy said of the state’s position.
She also noted that while the project evaluation has been drawn out over decades, the EIS “spun off” the several miles of completed upgrades to the Sterling Highway between the intersection with the Seward Highway and Cooper Landing.
The Sterling now has wider shoulders and numerous passing lanes and turnoffs along that stretch.
Absent from the concerned group of Kenai Peninsula organizations was the Cooper Landing Chamber of Commerce or any other private entity from the community at the center of the debate.
While the section of the Sterling Highway through the community would remain open, many Cooper Landing business owners are against the bypass for fear it would pull potential customers away from their traveler-dependent restaurants, lodges and stores. They note the highway is only busy for a couple months during the peak of the Kenai sockeye salmon run and have pushed for improving the existing corridor.
State and federal Transportation officials have said the fact that the existing highway is wedged between the river and mountains makes the requisite safety improvements cost prohibitive in some sections and completely unworkable in others.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.