Excerpt from:

Moday, November 19, 2001

ALTERNATIVES: Panel grapples over routes for a wider, straighter Sterling.
By Jon Little 

Cooper Landing resident Phil Weber fears that one alternative for a new highway will pollute his home water supply, a small creek that spills from the mountainside. (Photo by Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)

Cooper Landing -- Bill Fort moved here to the southern bank of the Kenai River to enjoy the famed sportfishing, not to live beneath a highway overpass.

But that could happen under one scenario considered by state planners who want to rethread the Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing. Fortunately for Fort, there are several other route ideas, including some that would carry traffic far away from his home.

That piece of highway through Cooper Landing is the oldest, narrowest and most meandering segment of the Sterling -- the last vestige of the circa 1947 roadway. Bottlenecks and accidents have long been common and are likely to get worse with more people living here, more roadside businesses and more tourists driving through.

Another argument for moving or improving the road was underscored last month when a tanker truck turned over at a curve in the road and spilled gasoline and diesel into a pond that feeds the Kenai River. Most of the spill was contained, but people still worry that the old highway threatens the world-famous fishing stream.

The number of alternative highway routes has ballooned from four to nine in recent weeks, thanks to a public panel led by the state Department of Transportation. A decision on which way to rebuild the 15-mile segment, from Mile 45 to 60, is probably months away.

Leaders of the process say they have all the imaginable routes sketched out and are poised to begin rejecting all but the most suitable.

It will be no easy task.

"Everyone's looking at it from the bottom line: How's it going to affect me?" Fort said.

Fort would lose if the state elects to widen and straighten the existing highway -- the Kenai River alternative. That $45 million to $55 million option calls for up to five new bridges. "One of the bridge pilings sits right on top of my house," he said.

Fort is pushing the state to select what it calls the Juneau Creek alternative, bypassing the town. It's the oldest and cheapest idea, at an estimated $30 million to $40 million. It would blaze a new highway north from Kenai Lake up to a plateau and across Juneau Creek before dropping back to the existing road bed near the Russian River ferry crossing.

Many other people, including one of Fort's neighbors, Phil Weber, don't like that. Weber lives on a slope facing Kenai Lake, and the Juneau Creek alternative would run just behind his house. He fears it will pollute his home water supply, a small creek that spills from the rocky mountainside. It would ruin a refreshing hike up Slaughter Ridge from his back yard.

Weber wants the highway kept the way it is.

"In 15 minutes, I can be sitting on a great overlook of the Kenai River Valley. If the alternative happens, I'll still be up there within 15 minutes, but I'll be overlooking a four-lane road," Weber said. "I'm not a tree hugger by any means, but there's just a lot of things like that that just concern me."

Many Cooper Landing shop owners say their cash registers will grow cobwebs if the highway bypasses them. "If you kill the road, well, you kill the business," said Dodie Wilson, who has owned and operated Hamilton's Place, a restaurant, gas station, bar and convenience store, since 1971.

Down the highway a bit at Gwin's restaurant and lodge, owner Bob Siter said he sides with Wilson and the other business owners who depend on the whims of passing drivers. The state could easily smooth out the worst of the curves, and motorists could drive a little slower.

"If the goal is to build a superhighway from Anchorage to Homer, four lanes across, you know, I don't like that," Siter said. "It's not why people come to Alaska, and it's not necessarily what they need."

Alaska Center for the Environment, which sends a representative to the planning meetings, also has been pushing a less-is-best approach. It wants to see the state stick to the original highway route as much as possible to protect Chugach National Forest bear habitat and to preserve Resurrection Pass trail.

Defenders of the popular trail also have proposed shortened versions of the Juneau Creek alternative to spare the trail and a scenic waterfall from too much traffic noise.

Some of those alternatives would require long bridges that could raise construction costs by several million dollars, planners say. One variant plops the highway smack into a brown bear feeding area, according to state consultants. It also costs the most, between $65 million and $75 million.

The latest alternative, a bold proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would bypass Cooper Landing on the southern side of the valley. It would cross Cooper Creek and the Russian River with two bridges. It would continue along a plateau behind the Russian River campground before rejoining the old highway with yet another bridge, over the Kenai River just downstream from the Russian River ferry crossing.

But the thought of an overpass spanning the beautiful Russian River, one of Alaska's premier rainbow trout fishing streams, inspired this wry remark from Larry Marsh, a state sportfishery biologist and avid Russian River fly caster: "Who wouldn't want to be on the banks of the Russian River and listen to the whine of tractor trailers and, maybe, on a snowy, wet blustery day, be blessed with a shower of slush raining down on their heads?"

There are other highway options, with variations on variations.

The Kenai River route could be changed to eliminate the need for five new bridges. But that plan, called the wall variant, would require much excavation through hillsides and require some massive retaining walls.

Marsh said he leans toward this wall variant despite its flaws because it protects wildlife habitat by not blazing a new route. It limits the risk of polluting fish habitat in the Kenai by pulling the highway farther from the river than it is now.

Rerouting the highway has been discussed since the 1970s, longtime residents say. The state in 1994 chose the Juneau Creek alternative in its environmental impact statement, but the federal government suggested further study.

The project was revived this year. This time the state hired consulting firm HDR Alaska Inc. It brought in an Oregon-based mediator to lead the discussions, which regularly draw 50 people in Cooper Landing.

While there is some grumbling among the public participants that the state is still dead set on its Juneau Creek route, organizers insist this new round of brainstorming is a fresh start.

"A lot of things have changed since 1994," said Miriam Tanaka, the state's project manager. Bear research, notably, has shed new light on habitat issues, she said.

"I think the reality is it's going to be pretty hard for the commissioner not to take into account all the work, the input and conversation everybody's had to come up with the preferred alternatives," said Jamie Damon, the mediator.

The next meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 16 in Cooper Landing, will ask the public to begin highlighting reasonable alternatives for future study and to reject the weakest proposals, said Mark Dalton, HDR's team leader.

Reporter Jon Little can be reached at jlittle@adn.com or at 907-260-5248.