Story last updated at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2002

Pioneer facelift slows traffic
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Gary Thomas, Homer News
Sharon Kliethermes, above, with Alaska Road Builders waves traffic down Lake Street from Pioneer Avenue Friday as construction started.  
By next week, Pioneer Avenue's axle-breaking lagoon that appears in front of Alaska Wildberry Products during a downpour and the mysterious tread-trouncing craters below Bartlett Street should be a distant memory.

In their place should be a mile of smooth blacktop, much to the pleasure of some business owners along the road.

"It really needs to be done," said Kurt Weichhand, co-owner of Homer Travel. "Pioneer Avenue has kind of been an embarrassment for the main street of Homer."

While few argue the benefits of new pavement on one of Homer's busiest thoroughfares, laying that pavement has caused difficulty for motorists this week. During the height of the tourist season, traffic is most congested even without a major road construction project.

Gary Walklin, project engineer for the Department of Transportation, said the project was being done one lane at a time in an effort to work with businesses during their busy season.

Even so, reducing Pioneer Avenue to a one-way street channeled cars down Lake Street this week, causing vehicles to back up even farther than usual at the turn onto the Sterling Highway.

Walklin said the project was scheduled for mid-June because the contractor, Alaska Road Builders, was also working on the East and West Hill Road pavement projects, and those required a piece of equipment that was only available in May and early June.

Murph O'Brien, the department's central region assistant director, said Alaska's short construction season makes it difficult to prevent conflict with the tourist season.

"We try to get in and get out as quickly as we can," he said.

Some confusion over the Pioneer Avenue project stemmed from a meeting last year with business owners, where some felt there was a chance the project would be done last fall rather than this summer.

O'Brien said, however, that the project bid was not awarded until December, so this summer was the earliest it could have been completed.

Although fall construction might have been easier from a traffic perspective, O'Brien said, the best time of year to do paving projects is when it is warm outside.

In addition, some problems with equipment delayed the project by about a day last week, and since a request was made for contractors to not work during the weekends, the project has now stretched over two weeks, since starting June 19.

Walklin said the contractors were considering doing some of the remaining work during the evening hours when traffic is lighter.

Walklin said, in his opinion, Alaska Road Builders has devoted all its resources toward this contract, and the final pavement should be down by this weekend.

"We are trying to minimize the impact," Walklin said. "We've had a few people who felt like it had an economic impact and also a few misunderstandings about when work was to be done, but most of the business owners have been really supportive about having the road upgraded."

One of those fans of the project is Kate Mitchell, owner of NOMAR and Main Street Mercantile, who said she is excited at the prospect of a nice, smooth road.

"That company is doing its best," Mitchell said. "On July 4, we will march down the resurfaced road with great pride."