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Cooper Landing bypass creates path forward for walkable community

Cooper Landing's Community Hall.
Riley Board
Cooper Landing's Community Hall.

Under different names and leadership, a project to make Cooper Landing a more walkable community has existed since the 1970s.

That’s just about as much time a highway project to reroute the Sterling Highway around the community has been under discussion.

In the past few years, the bypass has come to fruition. The Alaska Department of Transportation settled on a route in 2018, broke ground in 2021, and is tentatively planning to open the bypass in 2027.

That could bode well for the walkable community initiative.

“The project itself has always had the specter of the bypass lingering over it,” David Story said.

He’s a member of Cooper Landing’s Advisory Planning Commission, and he heads up the current iteration of the Cooper Landing Walkable Community project. He said the constant uncertainty about the bypass has prevented the project’s vision of creating what are called “active transportation facilities” — separated walking and biking paths throughout the community.

“Because until a preferred alternative was selected for the bypass, the agencies that were in charge of making those decisions generally said, ‘We’ll figure that out after the bypass is selected,”’ Story said.

As it stands, getting around Cooper Landing is essentially only possible by car. The community is stretched out across the Sterling Highway, grouped in three main populated areas. Walking to school safely isn’t particularly possible for students, and commuting on foot or bike to businesses in town poses the same struggle.

For example, Story said he’s fairly confident that the Cooper Creek Bridge through town is the narrowest point on the Sterling Highway, and that getting to businesses across the creek involves hopping two guardrails and running across the road.

The walkable community project has made smaller strides over the years to make Cooper Landing walkable. But now, as part of the bypass project, the community will gain a section of separated paths from the Sunrise Inn on the east end of town, stretching about two miles west, and another separated pathway along the length of the 10-mile-long bypass.

Story said it’s been proven all over the world that having a walkable community is a benefit to the health and economy of a town.

“Pretty much every metric that you can look at will support that as a benefit to a community, and I don’t think we’re any different just because we get a little more snow than places in the Lower 48,” he said. “That’s what we have fat bikes and skis for.”

Story said walkability will impact not just residents, but also Cooper Landing’s many, many tourists. He said Cooper Landing contains two major federal campgrounds, several minor federal campgrounds, miles of trails and popular sportfishing locations — all of which will be more accessible through the Walkable Community Project’s vision.

“Imagine how wonderful it could be if you could ride your bike from your campsite at Quartz Creek Campground all the way down to the Russian [River] and not have to drive your RV there. Doesn’t mean you can’t stay in your RV at night, but it does mean that you’re less likely to hit a pedestrian’s head with your mirror on your way to go do it,” he said.

Story said they’re still figuring out funding for the project going forward. One hitch is that when the road through the community is no longer an inner-state highway, it will lose certain opportunities for funding. Story said the Walkable Community Project is actively seeking grants to complete a design study that will help make the pathways happen.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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