Sterling Highway construction to continue in 2018

The state is planning to continue four major road projects on the main highway to and from the Kenai Peninsula in 2018.

Last summer, contractors for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities started one major road project on the Sterling Highway and are planning two others in the near future. The ongoing one stretches between mile 58–79 of the highway, roughly between Sterling and just outside Cooper Landing, rehabilitating and adding wildlife-friendly infrastructure to the highway.

The other three aren’t yet under construction, though plans are in the works. One stretches just south of Soldotna down to Clam Gulch and would widen the highway’s shoulders, improve lighting and adjust culverts for better fish passage, among other improvements. Another would construct a new section of highway between highway mile 45 and 60, also known as the Cooper Landing Bypass. The third will resurface Kalifornsky Beach Road between Bridge Access Road and the Sterling Highway and add several traffic signals.

Altogether, the work on the Kenai Peninsula is estimated to cost about $58 million in 2018, under a quarter of the DOT’s spending in the Central Region, which includes metropolitan Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and two remote projects, said Dave Kemp, the division director for the Central Region, in a presentation to the Alaska Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday. The planned spending in 2018 is higher than in the past few years, he said.

“In 2018, we expect to see a bit of a jump,” he said. “We’re doing some large airport projects, one of them at (Anchorage International Airport).”

The work on the Sterling Highway Project between Sterling and Cooper Landing, known as the Mile 58–79 Rehabilitation project, began last summer and is projected to run through fall 2019 and cost $54 million. Contractor Granite Construction began work to clear trees and widen the road last year, wrapping up around October with work planned to resume in the spring. This year, plans call for the contractor to add passing lanes and wider shoulders as well as a new pedestrian access under the road for the popular Skyline Trail so hikers do not have to cross the highway.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon (R-Eagle River), a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, asked why the Sterling Highway Project cost so much more than some of the other highway rehabilitation projects in the central region. Part of the reason it is so expensive is because of the wildlife infrastructure planned to help moose cross the road to avoid collisions, Kemp said.

“There were undercrossings, there were … fallouts, a way to get animals from one side of the highway to another, and this road was constructed right next to the lake,” he said.

For the Kalifornsky Beach Road project, contractor Knik Construction is scheduled to begin work in spring 2018 and be finished by the fall for a total of $10.4 million, Kemp told the committee.

The other two Sterling Highway projects are still waiting for permits or final approval. DOT engineers are finalizing plans for the Soldotna to Clam Gulch project, with construction anticipated to begin in 2018 or 2019. The Cooper Landing Bypass is still on hold until the state DOT receives a final Record of Decision about the approved route from the Federal Highway Administration.

The Cooper Landing Bypass is the oldest Environmental Impact Statement on the federal government’s record. Consideration began about 40 years ago, as more traffic began coming to the Kenai Peninsula from the north and impacting the small community of Cooper Landing. The state DOT initially announced its selection of a preferred route for the road in December 2015, but outcry from the communities, local government and state government eventually led to an announcement from U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announcing a reconsideration of the route. The objecting parties said they preferred a northern route called the Juneau Creek Route.

Kemp said the state does not have a final record of decision yet and so cannot move forward, but expects one relatively soon. Once the DOT receives its final EIS Record of Decision on the route, the department will move forward with the design and right-of-way acquisition with a target construction dates lasting from 2021 and 2026, Kemp said. Because of the scale of the project, the DOT will probably plan the construction in phases, Kemp said.

“We’re probably not going to put this entire project out there at one time because it’s estimated somewhere around $230 million,” he said. “What we’ll probably do is phase it, do the … north end of the project and then the south end of the project first because the bridge is in the middle. We’ll probably get the whole project done in a quicker manner if we do it that way rather than trying to start in the middle because there’s a lot of design work that would need to go into that.”

MacKinnon raised concerns about the cost of the project. The DOT projects the cost at $230 million for the Juneau Creek Route. The projections were for the G-South Route were initially more than the Juneau Creek Route. MacKinnon asked if the change in route would cost more, and Kemp said he was not aware that it would.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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