Feds change course, pick Alaska’s choice for Sterling Hwy re-route
There finally appears to be a resolution to the saga over how best to avoid Cooper Landing.
Gov. Bill Walker was joined Wednesday in the Capitol by Kenai Peninsula legislators Sen. Peter Micciche and Rep. Gary Knopp, to watch DOT Commissioner Marc Luiken and Alaska Federal Highway Administration head Sandra Garcia-Aline sign a final environmental impact statement for the Cooper Landing bypass project and bring the project one big step closer to reality.
Walker said he is among the countless Alaskans to have navigated the winding, narrow stretch of the Sterling highway through Cooper Landing in an oversized RV, adding that he has never talked to a group of residents from the area and not had the issue come up.
“This is a safety issue,” the governor said. “This is a milestone that’s been long-awaited.”
State and federal officials working to advance the Cooper Landing bypass project have said they believe it to be the longest running EIS for a transportation project in the country, if not the most drawn out EIS overall for any type of development.
The transportation agencies are on the third iteration of an EIS for the project since publication of the first draft in 1982.
Micciche and Knopp expressed their appreciation for the agencies’ efforts to listen to stakeholders concerns and address the longstanding public safety problems the current highway presents during the summer.
“This project began when my voice cracked with puberty and today we’re signing the EIS,” a gray-bearded Micciche quipped.
A major hang-up has been over what route to choose through the challenging mountainous terrain and the sensitive Kenai River watershed.
Sentiment is mixed amongst Cooper Landing residents and business owners as to whether the project should be built at all, as some fear it will steer potential customers away from their businesses that rely on the traffic.
The state recently completed work to straighten and add passing lanes to the Sterling Highway east of Cooper Landing and is preparing for similar work on the stretch of highway west of the Cooper Landing bypass area over the next two years.
Publication of an EIS last year left the state at odds with the Federal Highway Administration, which chose a route different than that preferred by many on the Kenai Peninsula and Gov. Bill Walker’s administration and the congressional delegation.
The final EIS signed Wednesday selects the Juneau Creek alternative route favored my most Alaskans who have formally voiced their opinions on the project. The Juneau Creek corridor would take the highway north of Cooper Landing and add 10 miles of new road, with a cost estimated at $205 million, before reconnecting with the existing highway west of the community and the Kenai-Russian River confluence area that draws thousands of anglers each summer.
The FHWA originally chose a route known as the G South alternative, which also would take the highway north of Cooper Landing, but would reconnect to the current road after about five miles and not avoid the busy Kenai-Russian area. At $250 million, the G South option is also estimated to cost more because it would require a new bridge over the Kenai and reconstruction of the existing Schooner Bend Bridge at the west end of the project.
Walker and the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation sent a joint letter to leaders of the federal Agriculture, Interior and Transportation departments last July urging them to reconsider the G South selection and work to reach agreements that would facilitate the Juneau Creek alternative.
They contended 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.
The letter was sent to Interior and Agriculture because the Sterling Highway project would impact the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Chugach National Forest, which had been a complicating factor.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao subsequently visited Alaska in August and committed to reexamining the Cooper Landing bypass decision by reopening the Least Environmental Harm Analysis portion of the EIS.
Luiken said the fact that the governor and delegation took up the issue together helped get Chao's attention on the matter.
Chao also announced at the time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior Department agency, agreed to consider a swap with Cook Inlet Region Inc. of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge acreage for some of the Alaska Native corporation’s property that would aide the Juneau Creek route.
FHWA Alaska Administrator Garcia-Aline said the new choice was made in partnership with CIRI and the local Kenaitze tribe.
“This sets an example for the nation as to how we can move some of these projects forward and get them into construction,” Garcia-Aline said.
She added that a public comment period on the final EIS will commence soon and likely end in mid-April, setting the project up for a record of decision in early May.
A state DOT spokeswoman said, barring additional delays, construction is expected to start on the first phase of the three-phase project in 2020, as about two years of design work will be needed after the record of decision is published. The bypass should be completed around 2026 if all goes as planned.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].