DOT plans to revamp downtown Homer

Driving in downtown Homer traffic can be a hassle. Is it better to drive all the way around to avoid turning left? Residents and the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) have pondered upgrades for years.

On July 14, DOT held an open house at the Best Western Bidarka Inn to discuss two major projects planned for Homer’s commercial core. These projects have been discussed here before, but the planning is nearly complete and the state preparing to move to the next phase. The goals of the open house were to update people on the most recent versions of the plans and to solicit feedback. About 35 people came.

One project is the Homer Lake Street Rehabilitation between the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue. The plan includes widening the road, improving drainage and adding bicycle lanes. Design work is about 75 percent done, according to the DOT fact sheet.

The other project is for improvements to the Sterling Highway and Main Street intersection. The intent is to modernize an intersection that, according to the DOT handout, “… currently experiences delay times and crashes that are above an acceptable level.” The plan is to add a traffic signal, new turn lanes and a retaining wall in front of the NAPA Auto Parts store on the uphill side. The design work is about 65 percent complete.

Design work will continue and the next stage will be acquiring rights of way, which usually takes about two years. The state has booklets available for property owners who may be affected. DOT expects to begin actual construction of both projects in 2018 and complete them in about a year. Because the road projects are federally funded, recent cutbacks in state budgets will not affect them.

“This has been going on for years,” said Homer Mayor Beth Wythe, who came to the open house.

A year ago DOT held a similar session. The preliminary plan for the Main Street intersection then included building a roundabout, an idea that proved very unpopular and was dropped during the revision.

Plenty of issues remain to be resolved.

One person concerned about the current plan for the Main Street intersection is Daniel Cox, the freight handler at the NAPA Auto Parts store where the project will impinge on the current parking lot access. The store already has difficulties getting semi-trailer trucks into the slot by its freight door on the building’s uphill side due to the traffic, narrow roads and small parking lot, he said.

On the plan illustration, Cox pointed to a raised divider to be added between traffic lanes on the Sterling Highway at just the point where the big rigs need to turn left to get to NAPA. “That right there is gonna crush me,” he said. 

Cox filled out a comment sheet asking that the divider be removed from the plan. He also recommended that something be done to make the grade on Main Street north of the intersection less steep. When roads are icy, it is hard for southbound cars to stop there.

“I’ve slid into that intersection many times,” he said. “That grade is too great.”

Another local monitoring the projects is Al Waddell, who owns the Homer’s Gold Mine Gifts store on lower Lake Street. His family has owned the land north of the highway and west of Lake Street since 1953, he said.

Redoing the Lake Street and Sterling Highway intersection over the years has had a big impact on the Waddell property. Relations with DOT have not always been smooth, but the road upgrades have improved things. Before the traffic signal was installed, he witnessed huge traffic backups on Lake Street, he said.

This time, Waddell is concerned about a row of ash trees doomed by the planned road widening. He is trying to find someone who can move them alive. “I helped my dad plant them,” he said.

Waddell said he came away from the meeting a year ago with misgivings, but this time he was upbeat. He praised changes made under Gov. Bill Walker’s administration and the engineer serving as the new DOT project manager, Carla Smith. She took the helm of both projects in June.

“She’s working it out for me,” he said.

Cox, too, was guardedly optimistic. This year’s open house was better than last year’s and the work should move forward, in his opinion.

“Something needs to go through. There are too many accidents,” he said. “I like the idea of something there. I think it will be good in the long run.” He paused, then added, “If they work out the kinks.”

After the meeting, Smith said that people who commented were pleased about getting a bicycle lane for Lake Street, but disappointed that there won’t be room for an additional sidewalk on its west side. For both projects, locals emphasized the need to maintain drainage. To address the technical challenges, she will return to Homer next week with the DOT hydrology specialist to examine the sites, she said.