After considering several possible paths for a new highway section around Cooper Landing, the Alaska Department of Transportation named its preferred path for the new road on Friday.
The proposed 5.5-mile bypass will depart from the existing Sterling Highway around milepost 52 in Cooper Landing and cross to the north side of the Kenai River via a bridge to be constructed about a half-mile east of that point. A second new bridge will take it over Juneau Creek, and on the north shore of Kenai Lake it will connect with the existing highway around Mile 46.
Passing through uphill land to the north of Cooper Landing, the proposed alternative will avoid a section of the present Sterling Highway that is winding, narrow and slow. The speed limit of this section is 35 miles per hour, encouraged by Cooper Landing residents whose homes and businesses sit close to the highway with signs that read “We drive 35.”
On either end of the new bypass, existing highway also will be replaced for a distance totalling eight miles. Department of Transportation spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said the road’s age makes it less safe.
“The road itself is fairly old, both in its actual age and its design age,” McCarthy said. “This section of the Sterling doesn’t meet modern highway design (standards). It doesn’t have adequate shoulders, it doesn’t have a good clear zone, which you find on most modern highways.”
Clear zones are empty space bordering a highway, which McCarthy said are important because “if someone did leave the road for some reason, we’d want that vehicle to be able to come to a stop safely without hitting an obstacle or a steep embankment that might flip a car.”
An existing bridge crossing the Kenai River near Mile 53, labeled on a Department of Transportation map as the Schooner Bend Bridge, will also be replaced.
The Department of Transportation has been studying Cooper Landing bypass proposals since at least 1994, according to previous Peninsula Clarion stories.
At that time, the department named a preferred route that passed through wilderness areas. According to McCarthy, the new preference does not have that problem.
“The routing avoids impacts to the Resurrection Pass Trail, the Juneau Falls Recreation Area and important cultural properties, and avoids using designated wilderness land within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge,” McCarthy wrote in a press release.
According to the project’s draft supplemental environmental impact statement, the road will affect 126 acres of Kenai Peninsula Borough Land, 90 acres of federal land and 43 acres of state land. Less than 1 acre of private property will be affected.
McCarthy said the “cultural properties” referred to in the release were areas important to Native Alaskans, which Department of Transportation had been asked to avoid.
The new section of the road will cross the Bean Creek hiking trail. McCarthy said the Department has yet to decide how, saying it was a decision “we will address in the design process.”
According to the impact statement, the Department of Transportation estimated the road will cost $303.5 million to build, and $23.8 million to maintain over 20 years.
It is still possible that the route could change before the Federal Highway Administration makes a final decision, which according to the press release, is expected in 2016. McCarthy said there will be an opportunity for the public to submit comments before the decision.
“Both the Alaska Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration identified this as the alternative they’d like to explore further,” McCarthy said. “What you’ll see is perhaps some tweaks to it, but moving forward, I think this alternative is the one they’ll build up and explore in terms of design.”
After design and federal environmental permitting, the road could be constructed in 2018.
Ben Boettger is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.