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Turnagain Pass Master Plan project completes first phase

The sign welcoming drivers to the Kenai Peninsula, at the
Hunter Morrison
The sign welcoming drivers to the Kenai Peninsula, at the start of Turnagain Pass.

Turnagain Pass, the high-elevation 20-mile stretch of the Seward Highway through the Kenai Mountains, is the subject of a multi-agency plan to enhance recreation.

Several state and federal entities, including the Federal Highway Service, are studying the beautiful but largely resource-less road through the Chugach National Forest for its public recreation potential. The 24-month project has a 20-year vision: to increase recreation along the highway while preserving its importance as the thoroughfare between Anchorage and the Kenai. Organizers presented the first phase of the project Monday afternoon in a public webinar.

“So over the summer and fall, we actually did quite a bit of public and stakeholder engagement to learn how people are using the corridor, what the needs, issues and opportunities are,” said Project Manager Cole Grisham with the Western Federal Lands Highway Division.

He said the agencies hosted open houses in Girdwood, Moose Pass and Anchorage in June. They also conducted focus groups with specific user groups like recreationists and local governments, and held tribal consultations.

Grisham said 2023 was the “homework phase,” a time to study what works and seek stakeholder opinions.

“Phase 2 is the “so what?” part of it. What do we do with that information? What do we say yes, no, and not yet to, and how do we come to those conclusions?” he said. “So looking ahead, the big deliverables in 2024 are certainly to propose projects and prioritization.”

He said the goal is to generate a master plan for the corridor by the end of the calendar year.

Jessica Smith with Anchorage-based planning firm DOWL described some of the information collected over the last year. She said they gathered vehicle data at pullouts through the pass, including popular sites like the “Welcome to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula” sign, and studied how amenities at those sites affect time spent there.

Smith said according to their study, services like toilet facilities and trash cans impact visit time the most. Toilets top the list.

“It’s probably the number one thing we heard the most about that could use improvement,” Smith said. “People would use them if they were maintained more, and if there were more of them.”

After presenting the first phase of the project and explaining the second, organizers took feedback and questions from participants.

Many attendees mentioned lackluster plowing of recreation lots along the pass. Others requested that organizers host public meetings in Soldotna going forward to loop in Western Kenai Peninsula residents. Some mentioned safety concerns winter driving and improvements to bike path continuity through the pass.

Grisham encouraged participants to stay connected to the project and view project documents online. The study should be complete by December 2024.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.