Moose Pass rallies to change course of Seward Highway rehabilitation project
The small community of Moose Pass has existed since before highways were built on the Kenai Peninsula. But now, an Alaska Department of Transportation plan to resurface and restore the road has residents afraid that construction on the Seward Highway will cause irreparable damage to their town.
Wedged between the water of Trail Lake to the east and mountains to the west, Moose Pass hugs the highway closely.
The Alaska Department of Transportation has long wanted to update an 10.5-mile stretch of the one-lane highway and improve drainage there by constructing ditches along the sides of the highway. This year, it hopes to start securing right-of-way acquisitions in order to build those ditches, pending approval by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission.
That concerns Moose Pass resident John Smart. He's taken on the role of communications for Preserve and Protect Moose Pass, a cohort of community members that gas have gathered to oppose the current plan for the project and brainstorm a more favorable path forward.
“The little old Alaskan downtown look that we’ve had here forever, which kinda makes Moose Pass unique, will be gone," he said. "All the old-grow trees will be taken back, we’ll have people’s front yards on the roadway and it won’t be the same easy-going, simple-looking American/Alaskan town that we’ve had before."
Smart said like many residents, he knows the road needs work — he’s just not happy with the way DOT is going about the project.
Many of Preserve and Protect Moose Pass’s complaints relate to the change in scope of the project. From the residents’ perspective, the scope changes were accompanied by a lack of communication with local residents that sowed discontentment in the community.
“I believe if they had stopped right then and went back through and looked at their study, and spent more time with the residents, we probably would not be where we’re sitting today,” Smart said.
DOT said the scope of the project has changed. Justin Shelby, an administrative operations manager for the department, said the current project has been scaled down from a larger rehab project, partially as a result of concerns from the community about impact. And in 2019, it was combined with a separate road resurfacing project.
Shelby said constructing the drainage ditches are an important part of extending the life of the roadway. Those ditches drain surface and subsurface water from the road, in addition to storing snow and catching runaway vehicles.
“Resurfacing the roadway without addressing the root causes of the degradation of the roadway would not meet the purpose of the project,” he said. In fact, he said DOT is proposing narrower ditches in Moose Pass than it usually would to accommodate the private properties close to the roadway.
Among the community’s chief complaints is the potential removal of old-growth trees, elimination of the parking areas of businesses and disruption of septic tanks.
Many Moose Pass residents will have their driveways modified, relocated or removed as a result of this project. In an August 2021 presentation to the Moose Pass Advisory Planning Commission, Project Engineer Kirsten Valentine pointed out that many driveways in Moose Pass were built without a permit and don’t meet driveway standards. She said the project will remove redundant driveways and bring others to compliance.
One business that could be affected by the rehab project is the Estes Brothers Store, which is located right on the highway and was founded as a homestead in 1921.
Jeff Estes is concerned about how the project will affect his business. He said if secured, the right-of-way as proposed would cut through about one third of the store itself.
“Does that mean they’re gonna move the store? I have to move the store?” Estes said.
He worried about how the project could affect the entryway to the store, which sits on the side of the building that faces the road.
“They originally suggested putting it on the north side of the building, and I was just floored,” he said.
Estes said that area gets buried in snow in the winter, and the other option — putting the entryway on the back of the store — just doesn't make good business sense.
Another concern among residents of Moose Pass is maintenance. While the highway construction is federally funded, maintenance is state funded, and resources are spread thin.
Estes is worried that this project will begin a new era of under maintained road.
“It seems to me that if they put in wider deeper ditches and larger culverts, larger, more maintenance-intensive structure — that if they don’t maintain it it’s going to be poor drainage and cause the roadbed to deteriorate again, being a massive waste of federal funds that we pay taxes for,” Estes said.
Shelby said DOT has a limited maintenance budget, which it uses for snow removal and traffic light upkeep, in addition to roadway maintenance. But he said it does have a larger capital budget.
“It’s much better to address a section of road like this with a capital project that’s not competing with the cost of other maintenance needs,” Shelby explained.
Additionally, Shelby said, some of the drainage ditches relevant to the highway aren’t currently in the right-of-way, which means DOT can’t access them for maintenance. Part of the purpose of the current project, he said, is to acquire easements that will allow maintenance of those ditches.
Smart said that for now, Preserve and Protect Moose Pass hopes to buy time while working on a solution.
“Our hope going forward is that we can sit down, delay this project and get a redesign together that benefits both the state of Alaska and the residents of Moose Pass,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission has already postponed a vote on the department’s proposal to give the Moose Pass Advisory Planning Commission time to review it. The Moose Pass APC plans to do that July 14.
Then, on July 18, the borough commission will vote on whether the plan meets borough code. Even if it gives the project the greenlight, DOT will still have to seek funding to take next steps.