The Kenai Peninsula Borough Roads Department is working its way through the final hoops before putting the Kenai Spur Highway extension project out for bid.
The long awaited project will extend the Kenai Spur Highway past its current end at Captain Cook State Recreation Area in Nikiski out toward Gray Cliff. The project is separated into a base bid with two option add-ons if the borough has money left over after the contractor finishes with the first approximately 4 miles of the road.
The funds come from a federal earmark originally appropriated in 1998 and given to the borough. The project lapsed when the borough found out the preliminary permit and environmental assessment work would consume the entirety of the grant and leave nothing for the road. But after oil and gas exploration company the Apache Corporation withdrew from Alaska, former borough mayor Mike Navarre’s administration worked with the company to obtain the preliminary work it did to extend the road out to a site north of Nikiski.
The donated preliminary work counted as a local match for the federal funds, so the borough has been able to obtain the money without having to draw out of the borough’s general fund. There is about $5 million left of the original appropriation, said Brenda Ahlberg, the community and fiscal projects manager for the borough, at a public meeting in Nikiski on Thursday.
“Originally, we didn’t think we were going to be able to use it all,” Ahlberg said. “Fast forward, now we have the funds being overseen by Western Federal Lands, we have a road that is going to hopefully go 8 miles into the Gray Cliff area.”
The borough administration initially thought to ask for a categorical exclusion for the road, which would have exempted the project from having to have an environmental impact statement. However, it didn’t quite fit, so late last year the borough began working on an environmental assessment, a shortened version of an analysis required to be compliant with the National Environmental Protection Act.
The document is now done and out for public comment until Feb. 15, said Borough Roads Engineer Henry Knackstedt at the meeting.
The plan for the road hasn’t changed much over the approximately eight months since the last public meeting held in Nikiski. The plans call for an 18-foot wide gravel road, which is slightly narrower than the borough standard elsewhere, but still wide enough for two cars to pass. Turnarounds are planned every 1,200 feet along the road, Knackstedt said.
Using a separate state grant, the borough is also planning to upgrade part of the Jacob’s Ladder ATV trail that leads down to the beach from the bluff near Leif Creek. The plans call for a 10-foot wide gravel ATV-only access, in part to prevent the expansion of existing damage to the wetland as ATVs navigate it, according to the draft Environmental Assessment.
“The construction of the Jacob’s Ladder trail will provide off-road vehicles improved access in an area where they are currently creating an ever-expanding footprint in the nearby wetlands and increasing the sediment load to Leif’s Creek,” the draft states.
The construction will likely take place over two years in the winter months because the wetland type soils will be easier to work with after frost starts to set in, Knackstedt said.
The borough has been working with Western Federal Lands, a division of the Federal Highway Administration that specifically works on roads across federal lands like the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Western Federal Lands Environmental Protection Specialist Steve Morrow said the grant is managed by Western Federal Lands and the borough will pay for the work and then request reimbursement out of the grant.
Although Apache had completed some of the preliminary work, they had to do another environmental assessment because the project has changed since Apache originally planned it, Morrow said.
“The project’s different now … we’re looking at it through a bit of a different lens,” he said. “Originally it was a private entity for oil and gas exploration. Now it is a public works project and the purpose and need of it is to serve the public by providing access.”
Once finished, the borough plans to maintain the road summer and winter, though it will be lower-priority than the busier neighborhood roads in Sterling. For the few full-time residents of Gray Cliff, the contractor will work with them during the construction to make sure they have access in and out of the area, Knackstedt said.
About 30 residents turned out Thursday to hear about the project and ask questions. Some were concerned about the increase potential for crime once the road is finished because of the increased access and lack of police presence in Nikiski in general. Nikiski does not have its own law enforcement and the nearest Alaska State Trooper post is in Soldotna, about 20 miles from where the rough community border at Miller Loop Road.
Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, who also attended the meeting, clarified that if the community wanted increased law enforcement in the area, they would have to vote to increase taxes in the area and to give the borough police powers to establish a law enforcement service area. The last time Nikiski voters considered a law enforcement service area in 2015, they shot it down by a margin of 57.55 percent to 42.45 percent.
The draft environmental assessment can be viewed on the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s website under the Roads Department.