Sterling Highway reroute to alter trails, recreation sites

  • By Larry Persily
  • Monday, June 4, 2018 9:30am
  • News

The quarter-billion-dollar project to reroute about a dozen miles of the Sterling Highway up the hillside and away from the Kenai River and Cooper Landing will include changes to two nearby trails and improvements for the popular recreation area.

The changes and additions to the recreational sites are not just about summer hikers and bikers and trekkers. One of the improvements is planned for winter skiers — a long pullout east of the new highway bridge over the Juneau Creek Canyon. The record of decision for the reroute, issued Thursday by the Federal Highway Administration, said state highway crews would plow the new pullout in the winter.

The pullout is listed among the mitigation measures “developed in consultation with the Forest Service,” the record of decision said. The highway reroute goes through the Chugach National Forest.

In selecting the Juneau Creek Alternative over several other relocation options, the Federal Highway Administration noted that it will require more fill placed in wetlands “but would move traffic away from the Kenai River over the longest distance.”

At its farthest point, near the Juneau Creek Canyon, the new highway will be about 1.5 miles north of the Kenai River.

Work on the recreational features will be clustered around the new 1,200-foot-long highway bridge over canyon — billed as the state’s longest single-span bridge. The bridge will pass over the Resurrection Pass and Bean Creek trails.

The bridge’s western abutment will be built “as far as practical from the existing (Resurrection) trail,” the decision document said. About 2,900 feet of the Bean Creek Trail will be moved about 450 feet west of its current path to come in under the canyon bridge at its eastern abutment.

“Bridge design features such as height above the trail and finished appearance would be reviewed with the Forest Service during the final design phase,” according to the Federal Highway Administration.

A set of short trails and viewing areas will be built to lessen the impacts, and safety risks, of pedestrians walking onto the new bridge for the view. Those will include:A canyon overlook built near the Juneau Creek Falls, with a disabled-accessible trail to the overlook.

A horse trail coming off from the Resurrection Pass parking lot and trailhead, connecting back to the trail north of the overlook, to separate horses from pedestrians on that busy segment.

A pedestrian walkway on the south side of the new highway bridge, connected to both the Resurrection and Bean Creek trails.

And full highway shoulders to accommodate bicyclists on the bridge.

In addition, a new parking area for the Resurrection Pass Trail will be constructed on the north side of the new highway, west of the bridge.

The state Department of Transportation will build the new trailhead, according to the record of decision, while the Forest Service will own it. It will have parking for 45 standard-sized vehicles, plus four pull-through spaces for buses or large campers and four spaces for vehicles with trailers. The total is almost twice the existing parking area on the Sterling Highway.

“Trailhead development would include a pit toilet and a kiosk for posting maps, trail information and interpretive displays,” the Federal Highway Administration decision said.

It’s not just about people. The project’s final environmental impact statement “includes commitments to extensive mitigation for wildlife movement, including Alaska’s first overpass of a highway and four dedicated underpasses.”

The overpass will be built west of Juneau Creek, about a mile from where the Russian River flows into the Kenai. Of the three underpasses — tunnels — for bears, moose and other wildlife, two will be built just east of Juneau Creek, with one near Milepost 56, just west of the Russian River ferry.

“To compensate for the break in the long-distance character of the Resurrection Pass Trail” by Cooper Landing, as directed in the record of decision, the state will provide a pedestrian walkway on the two Snow River bridges near Milepost 17 of the Seward Highway, about halfway between the Sterling Highway and the city of Seward.

“The new pedestrian walkway will connect existing and planned portions of the Iditarod Historical Trail — Southern Trek route,” which is proposed, but not yet built, according to the federal record of decision.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and federal officials have been working for years to determine the best route for the highway bypass. The Federal Highway Administration’s decision to go with the Juneau Creek Alternative came after public comments and reviews by multiple state and federal agencies.

Last week’s record of decision means the project can move to the design stage, estimated at about $25 million, and then construction, last estimated at around $250 million. Design is expected to finish by 2021 and construction to last until 2025. The state is looking to federal funds to pay most of the cost.

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