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Feds reject state transportation plan, but Peninsula projects aren't among main concerns

Work on the Cooper Landing Bypass, west of Juneau Creek, in Sept. 2023.
Riley Board
Work on the Cooper Landing Bypass, west of Juneau Creek, in Sept. 2023.

Federal agencies have rejected the Alaska Department of Transportation’s four-year plan for federally funded highway projects. The Kenai Peninsula’s most expensive transportation project, the Cooper Landing Bypass, shouldn’t be affected, but other local work will need to be amended to move forward.

Every four years, DOT submits a plan called a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP, which outlines all of the state’s federally funded highway projects. Alaska sent in its plan Jan. 19. In a letter dated Feb. 9, the two federal transit authorities responsible for approving the plan said it was not appropriately developed and rejected the STIP.

In 24 pages of comments, the agencies outline minor errors, and major problems that DOT will have until March 1 to address. The proposal includes $5.6 billion in projects, the vast majority of which comes from the federal government and is dependent on approval of the STIP.

In a House Transportation Committee meeting Thursday afternoon, DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson said the agency was confident it could remedy the issues with the plan.

Many of the federal complaints with the STIP are related to whether projects went through a local approval process, which Anderson characterized as a difference of opinion. During an exchange with Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, Anderson said DOT staff lacked experience putting together a STIP, something the department hasn’t done since 2019.

“We had a lot of new people,” Anderson said.

One significant Kenai Peninsula project included in the plan is the Sterling Highway Milepost 45-60 project, better known as the Cooper Landing bypass. The new highway alignment will divert traffic around Cooper Landing up through the mountains and over Juneau Creek, where the longest single-span bridge in the state is to be built.

In July, DOT officials announced that the rising cost of the project was pushing the agency to seek outside sources of funding, like federal grants.

The bypass isn’t mentioned in the 24-page list of issues, and DOT Spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said it's moving along satisfactorily. She said in November, the Juneau Creek Bridge contract was awarded for $151 million, and that work on that part of the project should be, “in full swing this summer.”

McCarthy said there’s no news on possible other sources of funding that will supplement the increased estimate for the overall project; she said depending on whether that comes in, DOT may have to complete some phases of the project back to back, rather than at the same time, which could affect the overall completion date of the project.

But some other peninsula projects are listed in a category that federal agencies say DOT must clarify and improve, classified as Tier 2 findings. Anderson explained that process.

“The Tier 2 and Tier 3 — and I discussed this with the FHWA administrator this morning — those are things that we continue to work on, and we provide assurances that we’ll continue to work on them, but they’re not required for completing the STIP,” he said.

One local project under this category would replace a failing culvert that brings water under K-Beach road and out to Cook Inlet. A comment from the feds suggests an issue with the funding source description, and says the described timeline for design and environmental work is unrealistic.

They also offered comments on improvements to the Sterling and Seward Highway intersection, describing the proposed funding as “undergrogrammed” and questioning a gap in the construction timeline. And a proposed plan to fix two Cooper Landing-area bridges is critiqued for using emergency funding; the federal agencies say they don’t see how it would be eligible for emergency relief.

Anderson told lawmakers that DOT is fully focused on the STIP, and will have meetings about the necessary revisions in the coming weeks.

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