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Wednesday, March 28, 2001

UPGRADE: Road Plans Scheduled for 2006 Could Bypass Cooper Landing.

By Jon Little

Road improvements along the twisting Sterling Highway through Cooper Landing have been promised for decades, but the state says it is now serious. It has hired an engineering firm -- HDR Alaska, the same company that designed the state's Whittier road tunnel -- to oversee the enormously complex task of building 15 miles of highway through the Kenai Peninsula's sportfishing heartland. The new road may not follow the existing highway along the Kenai River.

The state long promoted a northern bypass around Cooper Landing, across the river from the current highway. But in the past few months, a new alternative has emerged that skirts the community on the south. Both options cut through rugged hills in the narrow river valley, which is a migratory corridor for salmon and other wildlife, is rich in archaeology and has become a scenic magnet for hikers and mountain bikers. ''There are some challenges with this one,'' said Mark Dalton, HDR's project manager.

Dalton, several co-workers and some state Department of Transportation engineers and planners spent half the day Tuesday in Soldotna and the other half in Cooper Landing in informal meetings with whoever showed up to talk about an eventual highway route between Kenai Lake and the popular Russian River sportfishing area.

As many drivers have learned, the snaking highway with its tight curves and blind driveways force all but the most reckless motorists to slow way down.

It's too congested, too narrow and falls short of safety standards, state road engineers say. Among three alternatives is a bold 11-mile detour that climbs from Kenai Lake's northern shore and cuts across the Resurrection Pass trail before descending back to the existing highway corridor. Backpackers, bikers and local residents dislike that option. And some Cooper Landing business owners fear a bypass would hurt sales.

A slightly shorter variant of that route would cut back onto the existing roadway a mile sooner. It would be steeper but would avoid the politically onerous task of getting permits for a new road across federally designated wilderness.

The third and newest proposal would take the highway south of the current alignment near Snug Harbor Road, climb the hills behind the hotels and gas stations of central Cooper Landing, bridge Cooper Creek, then drop back down onto the old highway bed. It would require 3.5 miles of new highway.

A fourth option is to widen and straighten the old road. However, doing that to meet current safety standards would require five new bridges spanning the environmentally sensitive Kenai River.

''There are no easy solutions. It's a very constrained area. Every solution has impacts,'' said Miriam Tanaka, the state's project manager.

Beyond the concerns of residents, local business owners and recreationalists, planners also worry how the new stretch of road may affect brown bears. Bears migrate through the upper Kenai River valley to feed. And there are many important archaeological sites to avoid, such as prehistoric fish camps once used by Athabaskan and earlier cultures.

Despite the potential pitfalls, the state has set out on an aggressive timeline, starting with multiple community gatherings and agency meetings during the next year. By late summer, the state hopes to release an environmental impact statement. It would name its preferred highway route by next winter; construction is scheduled for 2006. ''They're really committed to seeing this process through to the end,'' said Jamie Damon, a Portland, Ore.-based public involvement specialist hired by the state.

Damon and the others will be attending an informal public meeting in Anchorage from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at the Department of Transportation's office, 4111 Aviation Drive.

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