It’s been over 40 years in the making, and will likely be a couple more before construction actually begins, but the Cooper Landing highway bypass project moved a significant step forward this week.
Gov. Bill Walker, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Marc Luiken and Sandra Garcia-Aline, with the Federal Highways Administration, signed the final Environmental Impact Statement for the bypass project Wednesday in Juneau. Walker hailed the signing as a significant milestone.
“This begins another step of the process but this is a critical piece of it. This will begin the process where there will be public input for 30 days and then there will be a record of decision that will come out based upon that. But this is the critical step that has been in the works for a long, long time,” Gov. Walker said.
The project would reroute the Sterling Highway between mileposts 45 and 60 to improve safety, alleviate traffic congestion and bring the road up to today’s highway standards. District O Sen. Peter Micciche says the reroute will improve safety.
“As you know we have some weekends in the summer, particularly around dip-net season, where we feel that the transportation of thousands and thousands of Alaskans through Cooper Landing will be much safer through the completion of this project,” Micciche said.
Public comment will be taken on the final EIS through April 16. The Federal Highway Administration will then review the comments and expects to issue a record of decision finalizing the route in early May. That will give the state DOT the green light to start the design phase and right-of-way acquisition. By that timeline, construction could begin in 2020 and wrap up in 2026.
The Cooper Landing bypass EIS has been in the works since the 1970s — making it the longest of any pending federal highway project.
“Part of the reason why it took so long is this is (an) incredible area. It’s highly sensitive, we’ve got federally designated wilderness, there’s obviously really important resources there — the Kenai River and Kenai Lake. And, of course, it’s a recreation-rich area, it’s a cultural area. So there were a lot of things to consider. It’s probably one of the more complicated sites in Alaska,” said Shannon McCarthy, public information officer for Alaska DOT.
Part of the holdup has been deciding on a bypass route. In the draft EIS, the G South Alternative was selected. It’s the most expensive option and re-routes the shortest amount of highway but impacts recreation areas the least.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough and other local organizations and agencies requested a reconsideration, preferring the Juneau Creek Alternative. That reroutes 10 miles of highway farther north of the river, crosses Resurrection Pass Trail and the Mystery Creek Wilderness area, and is the cheapest option at $280 million.
In July, Alaska’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Walker added to that pressure. They co-signed a letter asking the U.S. Departments of Interior, Transportation and Agriculture to work together to move the project forward, recommending the state’s preferred Juneau Creek Alternative.
“Many times I make calls to Washington to ask for something. This time the call will be to say, ‘thank you.’ It’s signed, it’s done …. And get on to the record of decision and get on with making that highway a much, much safer highway,” Walker said.
Sandra Garcia-Aline says she appreciated the partnerships and teamwork that went into finalizing the EIS.
“This also sets, as an example for the nation, in how we can move forward and move some of these projects and get them to construction,” Garcia-Aline said.
For more information on the Cooper Landing bypass, visit the project website at sterlinghighway.net.
In Kenai, I’m Jenny Neyman.