By Rick Smeriglio for SCN — At an open house and public hearing in Cooper Landing on Tuesday attended by about 35 citizens, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities presented four alternatives for re-routing the Sterling Highway around Cooper Landing along the Kenai River. In this most recent iteration of a decades-long effort, proposed routes have changed, but complexities have endured. Every alternative has negative consequences, including the alternative of doing nothing. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) acts as lead agency and makes the final decision on which alternative to build. FHWA will fund 90 percent of the cost.
At costs currently estimated at $250 million to over $300 million each, three routes would bypass Cooper Landing to the north and one would bypass to the south. Sterling Highway hugs Kenai River from the bridge at Kenai Lake’s outlet to the junction with Skilak Lake Road at mile 58. According to project manager Kelly Peterson, DOT has not yet identified a preferred alternative and must consider the alternative of doing nothing more than maintaining the existing highway. In 1982, DOT halted planned rebuilding of the 1950‘s-era highway. Over 10 years ago, DOT rejected the idea of rebuilding the highway on its existing alignment. It also rejected a route well north of Cooper Landing above Juneau Falls. Peterson said that the “no build” alternative of only continued maintenance, did not meet pressing needs to have a safe, efficient highway that protects Kenai River while accommodating the community and surrounding public resources.
Borough, state and federal lands and navigable waters, with their associated resource values and management constraints, impose difficulties on the crafting of alternatives. Three alternatives cross Chugach National Forest roadless areas and therefore, the federal Roadless Area Conservation Rule applies. That rule prohibits new roads, but provides an exception if US Secretary of Agriculture determines a federal highway project “… is in the public interest … and no other reasonable and prudent alternative exists …”.
A local, federal land-manager called the project the largest ever considered in a Forest Service roadless area.
One alternative crosses a portion of Mystery Creek Wilderness of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. According to documentation supplied by DOT, building a highway in a federally designated Wilderness requires Presidential and Congressional approval and has never occurred. However, an agreement between Cook Inlet Region Inc. (a major landowner in the area) and US Department of Interior, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, pursuant to the federal Russian River Land Act of 2002, allows those two entities to exchange lands, including lands in the Wilderness potentially crossed by the highway project, thereby obviating the need for Presidential road-building approval. According to the regional reality specialist for Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, CIRI and the refuge have not entered into such a negotiation.
Section 4(f) of the federal Department of Transportation Act applies to public lands used for park, recreational, wildlife or historic purposes. Unless considered minimal in its impacts, FHWA must select the alternative that has the “least overall harm”. The corridor between Sterling Highway mileposts 45 and 60 (the project area) contains much land, including state lands in Kenai River Special Management Area, subject to section 4(f).
DOT project manager Peterson said, “This is the most complex 4(f) project in the nation.”
Chugach National Forest Supervisor Terri Marceron explained that section 4(f) applied to very specific areas and not to all Forest Service lands in the area. In cases of unavoidable harm, agencies have a legal requirement to mitigate that harm, but not necessarily on site. The impact statement for this project gives the example of a highway chopping off a piece of Resurrection Pass National Historic Trail and mitigating that harm by adding a new piece to Iditarod National Historic Trail. Maceron acknowledged that sound from a highway had effects on resources beyond the footprint of the highway itself. She said that her agency now had to evaluate the impact statement to determine if the preparers (HDR, Inc.) correctly identified resources affected by the alternatives and fairly disclosed effects of highway building.
All alternatives would require the government to exercise its power to take private property and pay for it according to law. The one alternative south of Cooper Landing would affect as many as 38 parcels including eight homes. Although many citizens packed into Cooper Landing community hall for the evening, only 11 spoke publicly for the record.
Phil Weber said, “… it’s a fact … I am one of those people that do use surface water sources … I’ve got the best-tasting water in town … No one from DOT has said that they will guarantee the quality of my water after the construction is done.”
Four persons giving testimony favored doing nothing, citing poor construction oversight and negative effects of various alternatives. Four others favored particular alternatives, citing protection of Kenai River and negative effects of traffic, especially tanker trucks from Nikiski.
John Lohrey, statewide programs team leader for FHWA affirmed the proposed timeline for this effort known as Sterling Highway Milepost 45 to 60 Project. Alaska DOT will select one alternative from the four considered. FHWA will affirm that selection sometime in 2016. Lohrey said that because of the complexities of 4(f) land issues, FHWA will have a more than normal amount of influence into what DOT selects. DOT will take property and design the highway in 2016 and 2017. During that time, federal and state agencies including US Army Corps of Engineers, will decide whether to issue permits and grant rights-of-way to DOT. Construction could take as long as five years starting in 2018.
Cooper Landing resident Joseph DeMattia lives near the highway and expressed no preference amongst the alternatives, but said, “I would pick it for practicality and the easiest for people to get around.”
The FHWA has scheduled the next public hearing on the matter in Washington D.C. at the Holiday Inn Capitol on April 30. Interested persons can find comprehensive details about the alternatives and information about submitting comments at www.sterlinghighway.net.