A group of Moose Pass residents is pushing back against a project that would rehabilitate parts of the Seward Highway. Dubbed “Preserve and Protect Moose Pass,” the effort aims to delay state efforts to move forward with the work, which requires permission from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and coordination with local landowners.
The project area is about 10.5 miles of the Seward Highway from Mileposts 36.6, near the turnoff onto the Sterling Highway, to Milepost 25.5, near the southern edge of the Lower Trail Lake before Ptarmigan Campground. That segment of road is the only section of the Seward Highway that hasn’t received major improvements since its construction, Chris Bentz, project manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said Monday.
The project is meant to extend the service life of the only highway connecting Moose Pass and Seward and includes resurfacing, restoring and rehabilitating the highway corridor. Upgrading highway guardrails, improving drainage conditions and clearing vegetation are also part of the project scope.
Per a project fact sheet created by the department in April, current estimates put construction beginning in 2025. However, construction start time also depends on utility relocation agreements. All timelines are “directly linked” to the successful acquisition of the affected properties needed for the work, the department said.
The goal of the initial rehabilitation project was to bring that segment of the Seward Highway — built in 1950 — up to speed with 2022 traffic; 72 years without any upgrades necessitates improvements, Bentz said. That work, however, overlaps with private land parcels throughout the community of Moose Pass. Because of that, the Department of Transportation has to acquire affected rights of way, which refer to the legal route someone can use to move through property.
Initially proposed alongside the rehabilitation project was a separate resurfacing project for the same stretch of road. Bentz said the separate resurfacing project was canceled when it was determined that the scope of the rehabilitation was nearing the same improvements and the two projects were going to be completed around the same time.
As the Department of Transportation started to seek right-of-way acquisitions earlier this year, however, a group of Moose Pass residents organized under the name “Preserve and Protect Moose Pass” is pushing back. The group’s public information officer, John Smart, on Monday described the group as “the voice of our community.”
Smart said that he and some other residents were only familiar with the proposed resurfacing project — which is different from the rehabilitation project. When Moose Pass residents were informed in early June 2022 about the Department of Transportation’s plan to see right-of-way acquisitions, they took their concerns to the Moose Pass Advisory Planning Commission, which advises the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission on issues specific to Moose Pass.
“We didn’t like how the right-of-way acquisitions were showing the taking of private property and the businesses, and also the movement of the driveways and all the trees and all the things going on there,” Smart said.
The group also has concerns about how the rehabilitation work will affect the look and feel of the town, which predates the highway, and about whether the state will continue to maintain the road when the rehabilitation work is completed.
Bentz confirmed that the Department of Transportation is aware of community concerns about the look and feel of the town and about improvements that impact private property. He said the scope of the rehabilitation project has been scaled back “significantly” since it was proposed in 2012 due in part to those concerns.
“We have gone to pretty great lengths to try and limit those impacts,” Bentz said Monday.
Bentz also clarified that the Department of Transportation is seeking easement acquisitions — not fee acquisitions — for many of the parcels. The difference is that easement acquisitions allow the property owner retain ownership of the underlying property, whereas fee acquisitions would completely transition ownership to the state.
Though the Department of Transportation has offered concessions on some elements of the project because of community pushback, other changes will be unavoidable. Unless the department is made aware of any new information that it was previously unaware of, Bentz said, any changes to the current project scope would be made on a case-by-case basis with affected property owners.
Those one-on-one conversations with affected property owners, however, cannot happen until the Department of Transportation gets preliminary plat approval from the Kenai Peninsula Borough. As first reported by KDLL, department withdrew the request from the platting committee last month to do additional outreach in Moose Pass.
Smart said Moose Pass would like to see the Department of Transportation postpone the work and collaborate more closely with residents to figure out a path forward. The best possible outcome, Smart said, would be for the department to infringe on the least amount of private land as possible.
“We don’t believe that you have to have this gigantic road to a complete federal standard Lower 48-sized road, because that’s not why people come to Alaska,” Smart said. “They come to Alaska to see how we are. So, you know, a good road that we have had some input into, and that DOT has listened to and worked with us (on).”
From the Department of Transportation, Smart said the community wants to postpone the project so that residents and project officials can sit down and “revise” the plan. He also expressed frustration that the department cannot talk about options for residents without permission to acquire the rights of way first.
“It seems like an odd way to do it,” Smart said.
Bentz said the Department of Transportation doesn’t yet know when it will ask the platting committee to pick the issue back up, but said the department plans to delay until the Moose Pass community gets additional information. Once preliminary approval from the platting committee is secured, the department will pursue federal money needed for appraisals and acquisitions.
“We’re not going to make that decision until we’ve gone down there and done this additional engagement,” Bentz said.
The department has a project update and stakeholder event scheduled for Aug. 2 at the Moose Pass Community Hall, where property owners will also be given the opportunity to meet with the design team.
More information about the Seward Highway MP 25.5 to 36 Rehabilitation Project can be found on the project website at dot.alaska.gov/creg/sewardhwy25-36.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.