DOT seeks comment on Highway Safety Project

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities is seeking public comment before it moves forward with planned safety updates to a 21-mile stretch of highway from Soldotna to Clam Gulch.

DOT is in the initial planning phase of the estimated $30 million Highway Safety Improvement Project that will address issues from milepost 97 to 118 of the Sterling Highway, including widening the shoulders from 4 to 8 feet.

Aaron Hughes, project manager for DOT, said other improvements will include the addition of rumble strips and a safety edge, a feature which angles the edge of a road so that motorists who drive off it are able to get back on more easily.

“There’s two culverts at Crooked Creek that are going to be replaced with a bridge,” Hughes added.

Construction is tentatively slated to start in 2017. Prior to reaching that phase, project planners will conduct engineering and environmental reports and come up with initial project outlines.

Factors that could potentially be impacted by the improvements that DOT personnel will look at include wetlands, fish and wildlife, air quality, threatened or endangered species, water quality, historic sites, noise, cultural concerns and more, Hughes wrote in an email.

Potential impacts to the environment or historical sites will not halt the project but will require its planners to make changes to avoid doing harm, Hughes said.

“At that point, if we did have any impacts anticipated, then we’d have to do some mitigation,” he said.

Sections of highway are deemed in need of safety improvements through an analysis of their car crashes, Hughes said.

“They go through and the look at accident history in this area and they target specific safety improvements they can do along a corridor,” Hughes said.

A study encompassing the years 2006-2010 found that 266 car crashes occurred along the targeted section of the Sterling Highway, according to the project’s nomination form.

Of those accidents, 93 — nearly 35 percent — of them were “susceptible to correction” by the coming improvements.

Hughes said crews have already been out along the corridor in question to conduct impact surveys and that DOT should have a report in a few weeks.

In the meantime, the project team is looking for public comment on the planned construction to include in its reports. Hughes said a letter will go out to the public, potentially at the end of the week, after which people will have 30 days to submit their thoughts.

Comments can technically be taken at any point throughout the project development, but only those collected during the designated 30 days will be included in the environmental and engineering reports, Hughes said.

People can submit comments through the project website at dot.alaska.gov/creg/sterlinghighway-mp97-118.

There will also be a meeting held for the public when the project is 60–70 percent designed, Hughes said.

Soldotna City Planner Mark Dixon said the city will not have to get involved in the updates since they are being conducted by DOT.

Part of the road section being addressed by the updates is used in the annual Tri the Kenai triathlon.

Event Director Tony Oliver said wider shoulders should be a boon to the race. Oliver has ridden the bike portion of the triathlon in the past as part of a team, and said the narrow shoulders can present a challenge.

“That section from the high school to Echo Lake Road … even with the 4-foot wide shoulders, it’s intimidating,” Oliver said. “It can be kind of scary.”

Due to the narrow shoulders, Tri the Kenai has a rule that no participant under the age of 15 can be on the road. Many other races allow for participants starting at age 12, Oliver said.

With wider shoulders on the section of road used for the race, Oliver said changing the triathlon’s rules could be something to look into in the future.

“There’s a lot of younger kids that are quite capable of doing the entire race that can’t because of our restrictions,” he said.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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