The labyrinth of Alaska road construction
The Sterling Highway between Mile 45 and 60 is the subject of the longest EIS process in the nation, dating back forty years.
Every summer, scores of tourists and fishermen flock to the Kenai Peninsula, home to world-class salmon fisheries, spectacular scenery, and abundant wildlife. For most of the year, it’s about a two-hour leisurely drive south from Anchorage, but during the height of the summer tourist season, caravans of motorhomes and SUVs run into a fifteen-mile bottleneck on the Sterling Highway. At Milepost 45, the road narrows to two lanes with sharp corners, no shoulders, and limited visibility. It runs through the community of Cooper Landing, crossing hidden driveways and side roads with speed limits of 45 miles-per-hour or less. This stretch of the Sterling Highway was built in the 1940s and ‘50s to serve the level of traffic being seen at that time. Originally gravel, it is the only road that links the western Kenai Peninsula communities of Homer, Kenai, and Soldotna to the rest of the state. Today, it’s clearly overburdened.
For those fifteen miles, Sterling Highway is a slow-moving parking lot until the road widens once more to four lanes at Mile 60. Along with being incredibly congested, it also has a high rate of accidents.
As far back as 1978, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) noted the need for improved safety and traffic flow and started environmental impact studies (EIS) to determine the best way to improve that stretch of road. Forty years later it remains unchanged. It is the longest EIS on the federal books. What has taken so long?
In short, it’s a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Because the Sterling Highway corridor is bounded by federal land, it falls under an EIS process that typically can take anywhere from eight to ten years, according to Marc Luiken, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. And every agency involved has its own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“You have to follow that process,” Luiken says. “It’s not just the Federal Highway Administration. Every federal agency gets involved and has input.”
In the case of Sterling Highway, the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, an Alaska Native corporation, and the community of Cooper Landing would be affected by a potential realignment.
“Everybody gets input,” Luiken says. “Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily—it just takes time.”
The land adjacent to the highway is largely developed. Steep mountains rise on both sides and most of the land is managed by the Chugach National Forest and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Several state recreation sites line the Kenai River.
“Any change to the highway likely would impact wildlife corridors and habitat, recreation areas, and cultural sites,” according to the DOT&PF website on the Sterling Highway.
In the early 1980s, DOT&PF facilities identified several possible routes between Miles 37 and 60 and went through the NEPA process to determine the environmental impacts of the proposals. All were rejected for environmental, engineering, financial, and traffic constraint reasons. A second draft was released in 1994, but the project again stalled. Eventually, the project was divided and the portion of Sterling Highway from Mile 37 to Mile 45 was upgraded. That left the fifteen mile stretch of road between Miles 45 and60, which is wall-to-wall motorhomes in the summer.
One major issue was how alternate routes would affect federal wilderness land. Approving a transportation corridor through designated wilderness requires presidential review and congressional approval. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Russian River Land Act, which allowed Alaska Native Corporation Cook Inlet Regional, Inc., and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to exchange lands.
There’s another complication when a proposed road corridor goes through public recreational land, Luiken says. Under the Section 4(f) clause of the US DOT Act of 1966, federal agencies are prohibited from using land in publicly owned parks, recreation areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic properties unless they have no feasible and prudent alternative.
In the case of the proposed Juneau access road, for example, Luiken says the state had identified a preferred alternative route that would have linked Juneau directly to the road system in Canada. But a ruling in 2005 noted that the preferred access route would disturb a portion of the National Park Service’s Klondike Park south of Skagway.
Instead, the state was forced to go with an alternative route that ends with a ferry terminal at the Katzehin River.
“That’s the kind of thing that can happen with these federal agencies,” Luiken says. “Since we had another alternative that didn’t include a road all the way to Skagway, we had to select that as a preferred alternative.”
In the case of the Sterling Highway realignment, however, every alternative had a 4(f) issue, he says.
“And that just complicated it that much more,” he says. “That’s what has driven the time it’s taken to get to a final EIS.”
Between 2002 and 2017, there have been approximately fifty-three agency meetings on topics such as wildlife, impacts to trails and other recreational activities, and land issues. An additional twenty-three meetings were held with tribal entities, according to DOT&PF.
By 2014, five alternatives had been scoped for the Sterling Highway project, including a “no build” alternative. One alternative was chosen, but discarded after the EIS process was completed in 2015 and the hundreds of comments were evaluated. It looked like another huge delay, but the state reached out to the congressional delegation for help. They took another look at the analysis, collected comments, and identified a different route, called the Juneau Creek Alternative. The final EIS was signed in March and, at press time, Luiken expected a record of decision to have been made in May, “which is fantastic.”
Under the Juneau Creek Alternative, about ten miles of highway would be rerouted higher on the mountain shoulders north of Cooper Landing, reconnecting with the existing road at Mile 55.5. A new bridge spanning Juneau Creek Canyon would be the longest single-span bridge in Alaska. Total cost is estimated to be about $280 million.
“What it reflects are some of the changes this [Trump] administration are trying to poke through. Where all of a sudden agencies are bound to a timeline,” Luiken says. “They’ve got a set amount of time where they have to get the process done. Before that, it was work it out until you work it out.”
Another change is that Alaska is now one of a handful of states that can take over as the lead agency on environmental documents. “Every last one of them have seen huge time savings by being that lead agency,” he says. “Giving the states a little more authority and a little more power has actually proven to be hugely efficient. States are just better-equipped to do this because we’re just focused on our state, whereas a federal agency has fifty states to focus on.”
If all goes to plan, the agency will have the final design of the new route and acquired land sometime in 2021, with construction completed by 2025, almost fifty years after the process began.
King Cove to Cold Bay
Politics also plays a role.
The community of King Cove, population 900, lies near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, wedged between the mountains and the ocean. The community is accessible only by water and air, but flights frequently are canceled due to the region’s extreme weather. Residents have for decades asked for a road to the nearby community of Cold Bay, which has an all-season airport.
The only possible route, however, transects Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which was created by Congress in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. A land swap between an Alaska Native corporation and Izembek that would facilitate the one-lane gravel road has been turned down repeatedly by previous federal administrations over environmental concerns. Residents didn’t give up.
Della Trumble, a vocal advocate of the road, wrote in an editorial printed by The Wall Street Journal, “Protecting nature isn’t an either-or proposition. Yes, birds and bears should have a safe home—but so should my daughter.”
In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed off on the land swap, saying it was a priority for President Donald Trump. Nine environmental groups immediately sued the US government, saying Zinke lacked authority for the swap, which they said could set a dangerous precedent for development in other US refuges.
The US Justice Department is reviewing the lawsuit.
DOT&PF spokeswoman Meadow Bailey says environmental studies for the road have not started and adds, “We do not anticipate that the King Cove to Cold Bay Road project will be challenging from an engineering or construction perspective.”
Roads to Resources
Not all roads in Alaska must go through a lengthy federal process. Alaska’s rich mineral resources are a spur for development. Without road access, they’re stranded and unmarketable. In some cases, state and private funding, which have fewer regulations, are the answer.
After oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, the oil companies needed a way to haul construction and oilfield materials to the North Slope, and then to serve the operations after production started. The Bureau of Land Management set aside a utility corridor to protect the route of the trans-Alaska pipeline. The Haul Road, as it was called, followed this corridor for 414 miles, from 73.1 Elliott Highway near Livengood to its northern terminus in Deadhorse.
Contractors working for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company started building the road on April 29, 1974, and completed it five months later. Although DOT&PF took over maintenance in 1978, it was largely restricted to commercial traffic. In 1994, Alaska Governor Walter Hickel opened the road, now called the Dalton Highway, to the general public.
After a rich lode of zinc was discovered in Northwest Alaska in 1980, the mine developer and NANA Regional Corporation needed a way to get the zinc to a shallow harbor on the Chukchi Sea, fifty-two miles to the west. The state of Alaska’s investment arm, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), financed and built the DeLong Mountain Transportation System, which includes the road and port facilities. In return, Teck Cominco pays a fee for using the road.
A similar strategy is being envisioned for a proposed road to rich mineral deposits in the Ambler area. The 211-mile corridor is currently in the EIS process and is years from any possible construction. However, AIDEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik notes that Congress recognized the mineral potential of the Ambler Mining District, which could streamline permitting efforts.
Rodvik says that Congress wrote into ANILCA, Section 201 (4)(b): “Congress finds that there is a need for access for surface transportation purposes across the Western (Kobuk River) unit of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve (from the Ambler Mining District to the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road) and the Secretary shall permit such access in accordance with the provisions of this subsection.”
And Alaska has another option to build roads: state funding.
“There’s a big difference in federally funded projects and state-funded or privately-funded projects,” Luiken says. NEPA requirements aren’t as stringent for non-federal projects, although the state often works with the US Army Corps of Engineers.
“That cuts out huge chunks of time that are usually included in the preconstruction side of federal projects,” he says.
One example is the fifty-mile road to Tanana, which begins at Manley Hot Springs and ends on the south bank of the Yukon River about six miles from the village of Tanana. Planning for the road began in 2012 and a single-lane, sixteen-foot-wide gravel road was completed in 2016 for a total cost of about $13.7 million, all from the state. All the land the road traverses is either state land or privately-owned, so federal NEPA requirements weren’t triggered.
While the road doesn’t meet federal highway standards, it meets the needs of the community to date, says Meadows. Tanana residents have already seen significant savings in the costs of materials.
It’s an example of what can be done without burdensome regulations, says Luiken.
“It really speaks to what the governor has been trying to do for the last three years,” he says. “Get a stable balanced budget that includes other revenue so that we can go back to funding some of our own projects. We haven’t done that for years.”
“If you want to get projects done in the state in a timely manner, you’ve got to have state money involved and we could do that if we had a stable fiscal plan.”
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.