Kenai Peninsula Borough officials are examining options to extend the Kenai Spur Highway north.
The North Road Extension Project, as it is commonly known, has held onto federal government dollars since 1998 when the borough received about $6 million earmarked to extend the Spur about 26 miles beyond its Captain Cook State Recreation Area terminus.
Chief of Staff Paul Ostrander said two options are being considered to make some progress on the project, which would be primarily used by Moose Point and Gray Cliff property owners.
The preferred alternative is a re-scope of the plan that would utilize the earmarked dollars and require a congressional change, he said.
Ostrander said the borough would refocus the plan to just the first four miles from the end of the highway, which runs adjacent to the Nikiski Alaska Pipeline. He said currently there are issues caused by traffic accessing the area.
“In the wetland areas, when you have a lot of (all-terrain vehicle) traffic going in one area, it gets muddier and muddier and muddier,” Ostrander said. “And, as it gets harder to go through, the folks have a tendency to go around the mud hole that was created by the first few that went through. …. Then this hole just continues to grow until you’ve got a pretty significant impact.”
Along with large mud holes impacting the wetlands, Leaf Creek, an anadromous stream, also is seeing impacts from people using the adjacent Jacob’s Ladder Drive to access the beach, he said.
“What we envision would be just an 8-10 foot trail — not a full road, but just a trail,” Ostrander said. “So hardening an 8-10-foot strip would allow access to Leaf Creek —that first four miles — and folks would not have to utilize Jacob’s Ladder and the impacts to the wetland areas in that first four miles would be mitigated.”
By focusing on the first four miles, Ostrander said, the borough is hopeful an environmental impact statement wouldn’t be required.
To move forward with the plan, Ostrander said, the borough needs to work with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to see if the agencies support the plan before seeking a congressional change to the project scope.
The backup plan would be to divert the money earmarked for the North Road extension to another Department of Transportation and Public Facilities project. The state would then give a grant to the borough to do the extension work.
Ostrander said this option is less attractive because in the transfer the borough probably wouldn’t get a 100 percent exchange from the state for the federal money.
“Plus the fact that right now the state … their capital budget is not very large,” Ostrander said. “And trying to pull from a capital budget the type of money that would be required to get this done when there’s already money available doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
While the borough doesn’t have a “solid estimate” on how much it would cost to construct a four-mile hard-packed trail, Ostrander said the adminstration is confident it could be done with the remaining funds as long as an environmental impact statement isn’t required.
The best the borough could hope for would be a categorical exclusion classifying the trail as a mitigation project that will alleviate environmental damage in the area and doesn’t require a study, he said.
The borough spent some of the money in the mid-2000s on an environmental assessment, Ostrander said. After the assessment, it was determined the borough needed to do an environmental impact statement, which would deplete the remaining funds. He said the latest cost estimate for an impact statement for the entire project would “far exceed” the about $5 million available from the initial funds.
Since the borough learned an environmental impact statement is required to move forward with the project, various administrations have unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate monies exchanged with the state. With the majority of the funds having sat idle for about 16 years, Ostrander said, the borough needs to figure out a way to use the money.
“The real risk is that at some point the money will just be swept out there and it won’t exist anymore, and that’s always a possibility,” Ostrander said.
The borough has been working with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office to make sure the money isn’t swept out while administration is exploring options, he said.
Kaylee Osowski is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.