More than 275 Nikiski residents turned out Monday night to hear about the options for relocating the Kenai Spur Highway.
The Alaska LNG facility, a natural gas liquefaction plant to be situated on 800 acres planned to stretch along Mile 20 and 21 of the current highway, has suggested that the highway be redirected away from the shore of the Cook Inlet further into Nikiski. The preliminary options for the highway’s route were presented to the public during an open house hosted at the Nikiski Recreation Center Monday evening.
The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities and the Kenai Peninsula Borough are both involved in the planning process for the highway relocation, said Lydia Johnson, the technical manager for the Alaska LNG Project. Because the LNG plant is a long-term project and the highway would need to be relocated before the facility could begin operating, the highway project has to be able to operate on its own timeline, Johnson said.
“We’re separate but related, but (the highway relocation project) needed to have that flexibility,” Johnson said.
Relocating the highway could help avoid conflicts with the future LNG facility, such as public safety and excessive traffic on the road, she said. However, the project is still in its early phases and the open house Monday was designed to gather public information before any decisions are made.
Although it would take a different route, the highway’s parameters would remain roughly the same — two lanes and turn lanes, a 12-foot-wide pathway running alongside it and 8-foot-wide shoulders on both sides.
The options presented to the public include a range of possibilities: the most of which drastic includes turning the highway at Mile 18 and carving the road across to Miller Loop and Island Lake Road, reconnecting with the current highway around Mile 26. Other options include creating a loop around the proposed LNG facility, deviating at Mile 19.5 and reconnecting with the current highway around Mile 21.5. A host of other options or combinations are also possible.
Jeff Raun, the environmental consultant for the LNG project, said the staff would consider the comments collected Monday before moving forward with any of the options.
“This is a very early stage, and we’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, how people are moving from point A to point B,” Raun said. “The next step is to refine the list of preliminary options.”
The data collection process, including public comments, will continue throughout 2016. The design process is planned to begin in the first quarter of 2017, followed by the right-of-way acquisition, permitting process and the bidding process. If all remains on schedule, construction is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2018. Once completed, the road will be transferred to the DOT for maintenance.
Many attendees were concerned with the noise the road would bring as it cuts through the more residential areas of Nikiski. Felix Martinez, a Nikiski resident who lives on the shores of Island Lake, said if the highway were moved to Island Lake Road, the road would cut across his driveway.
“The speed limit may be 55, but everybody is going at least 10 or 15 over that,” Martinez said. “Do you want traffic going 65 or 70 less than sixty feet from your house?”
Anna Browning, who said she homesteaded and has lived on Island Lake Road for 40 years, also opposed the use of Island Lake Road. The noise of the road and extra traffic would take away the residential aspect of the neighborhood, she said.
“I’d rather it go over there,” she said, indicating the options closer to the current highway.
“Over there,” however, had its objectors as well. More than 4,000 people live in Nikiski, and the proposals for the highway would cut through what are presently largely residential areas. John and Jess McDonald, Nikiski residents with two young children, said one of the options would cut along a street with 21 children under the age of 18.
However, if the road has to be moved, the planners should take the neighborhood impacts into account, John McDonald said. For instance, the pathway included in the plans for the road could be useful for the community, he said.
“They’ve mentioned the bike path, and I’d like to see that connect to the bike path near the school,” John McDonald said.
Jocelyn O’Connor, the community stakeholder representative for the LNG project, said the planners designed the night to collect as much public feedback as they can. In combination with the community meetings hosted in August and September, the project’s staff appreciates the feedback they have received from the community so far, she said.
“Probably the biggest question people have on their minds is now that’s they’ve seen the map, their follow-up question is, ‘When are you going to decide?’” O’Connor said. “This is the beginning of a very long process and we’re here to talk to them so we can refine and hone in on the best option.”
If the relocation project moves forward, it will require the purchase of land. O’Connor said the project team plans to avoid using eminent domain to obtain the land, working with the private landowners instead.
Johnson said the land acquisition process is private, with the project’s representatives approaching landowners individually and discussing any potential purchase. Depending on the highway option preferred by the public and the final option selected, the project’s managers will determine if lands need to be acquired, and if so, which lands, she said.
The DOT, the borough and the LNG project will continue to meet with the public to update them on the progress of the highway throughout 2016, Johnson said.
“This community has done a great job being involved in the Alaska LNG project,” Johnson said. “Apply that same process to the highway, and the participation has been great. We’re all in this together, and we really need to make sure we do the right thing for this community.”