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Highway Upgrade Through Moose Pass Has Complications

Project area of Seward Highway upgrade through Moose Pass. Image courtesy of Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities
Project area of Seward Highway upgrade through Moose Pass. Image courtesy of Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities

By Rick Smeriglio for SCN —

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has announced its intent to upgrade the Seward Highway through Moose Pass, rather than build around it. The milepost 25.5 to 36 project has some difficulties that do not meet the eye. In addition to usual construction issues, the highway twice crosses Moose Creek, an anadromous stream, between mileposts 32 and 33 near the fish hatchery. Alaska’s Fish Passage Act requires that road culverts in fish streams not just pass water, but pass fish as well. As a further complication, buildings built close to the edge of the highway in core Moose Pass may squeeze traffic as well as limit options for DOT & PF.

State of Alaska DOT & PF has free and unencumbered right of way through Moose Pass and the whole highway alignment from Lower Trail Lake to Tern Lake, according to project manager Cynthia Ferguson. No one disputes that DOT & PF has a right of way. Where that right of way lies and its exact width may cause problems however. Ferguson said that DOT & PF needed to discuss a “boundary evaluation” and expected to have mapping issues resolved in the next three to six months. Narrow right of way widths through town may require DOT & PF to purchase private property for highway upgrading.

The DOT & PF has identified curve straightening as general goal of the project. The long, broad-radius curve at milepost 30 currently meets specifications for highways at 55 mph according to DOT & PF. Sight distance must equal or exceed 500 feet ahead of the vehicle. Engineers have not identified a need to straighten the curve at this time. However, private driveways that ease onto the highway in current 45 mph zones may not allow 500 feet of visibility in either direction. DOT & PF recommends that property owners clear vegetation to allow greater visibility.

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Scott Thomas, traffic and safety engineer for DOT & PF central region sampled vehicle speeds in and around Moose Pass from 2002 to 2012. In a telephone interview, Thomas said that his data show reasonably good compliance with the 35 mph speed limit in core Moose Pass. His data show that 85 percent of vehicles travel between 35 and 42 mph through town. Thomas attributed compliance to the ability of drivers to see a “conflict environment” thus giving credibility to the warning signs. He said that the data show much less compliance with the 45 mph limits north and south of town. Drivers cannot see the many small driveways in the zones and therefore see no reason to slow down. Thomas said that DOT & PF still had to perform a crash analysis for the project area, but he called it all a “corridor of concern” because of the lack of paved shoulders.

The DOT & PF has contacted Kenai Peninsula River Center as the one-stop-shop for needed permits on its highway project. Ginny Litchfield works at the River Center as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game area manager for Habitat Division. Litchfield says that highways that cross fish streams must allow the passage of fish, up and down stream. In Litchfield’s experience on the Kenai Peninsula, DOT & PF generally complies with the requirement.

Fish & Game can require and may issue a permit to DOT & PF to cross the anadromous waters of Moose Creek. According to Litchfield, Fish & Game usually specifies a so-called “design fish”, in this case a juvenile coho salmon, that highway crossing-structures must accommodate. The culvert or any other crossing structure must allow enough flow at low enough velocity that a juvenile coho can navigate it. Litchfield also does field inspections to ensure compliance and to determine if other habitat issues exist. She has not yet visited the project area, still in its early stages.

Seward Highway closely parallels, but does not cross, much of the anadromous water of Upper and Lower Trail lakes in the project area. Because Fish & Game jurisdiction regarding the Fish Passage Act only exists below the ordinary high water mark, the agency can only comment on other habitat issues for other species and can only suggest best management practices such as run-off control. According to Litchfield, unless the highway crosses critical habitat, Fish & Game has no other permitting authority applicable to state highways. Ferguson said that until it completes mapping and surveying, DOT & PF would not know if the highway crosses wetlands

In another recent DOT & PF announcement, the preferred alternative for the Sterling Highway bypass of Cooper Landing will cross 48.4 acres of inventoried roadless area of the Chugach National Forest with 1.1 miles of new highway. That fact likely will complicate final approval and may require a high-level waiver of the Roadless Rule. According to USDA Forest Service documents, the rule generally prohibits road construction in roadless areas, but does allow exceptions. An authorized FS line officer may allow roads to protect public health and safety. Additionally, the FS may permit a road when the Secretary of Agriculture determines that a federal highway project promotes the public interest. A road for which no reasonable alternative exists, merely needs to stay consistent with the purpose of the national forest.

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