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Open house doesn’t quell concerns about highway project through Moose Pass

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Riley Board
/
KDLL
Project Manager Chris Bentz (center) shows detailed aerial maps to a Moose Pass resident.

A years-long plan to update the highway through Moose Pass continues to draw pushback from residents of the small community, who worry the project will be disruptive to their properties and community. On Tuesday, Aug 2, 10 staff members from the Alaska Department of Transportation headed over to Moose Pass to talk over the project with residents at an open house.

It probably won’t be the last time the department meets with the community. And residents say there’s still a lot they’d like to see change before construction begins.

The meeting at the Moose Pass Community Hall brought DOT officials and residents together over detailed aerial maps of the proposed right-of-way acquisitions, large informational posters and a few trays of cookies. The event drew a crowd of more than 50 residents — many of whom do not live on affected properties, but said they worry about how the project could change their community.

Moose Pass resident John Smart is the spokesperson for the community action group Preserve and Protect Moose Pass, which has been gathering for months now to oppose the highway project as it’s currently planned.

Smart said he was disappointed in Tuesday’s meeting, which he said was disorganized and ineffective. After it ended, he posed a question in a community Facebook group: “Using one word or a short bullet, how would you describe last evening’s town hall?”

He read some of the comments.

“Chaos. Frustrating. Public relations stunt. Superficial. Smokescreen. Cow manure,” Smart said. And the list goes on.

But Smart and other community members said they did appreciate that DOT made the trip down. Last month, the department pressed pause on a project proposal to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission so that it could meet with residents to clear up the details of the project.

In a video presentation, Project Manager Chris Bentz and Project Engineer Kirsten Valentine reviewed the timeline for the project and explained why the design as it is now is the best option for the upgrades.

Valentine said one goal of the project is to create safer winter driving conditions. The proposed drainage ditches — which have drawn complaints from community members — are designed to hold snow that gets pushed off the road.

“Residents may remember the fatality that occurred a few winters ago when a vehicle collided with one of our graders out on the road working to clear the snow and ice, to keep the road open,” Valentine said in the video.

Wendy Milligan, whose property will be affected by the project, said that’s an unfair example to use, since it appeared the driver in the accident was intoxicated at the time. An Alaska State Trooper dispatch about the incident said that it, “appears alcohol was a contributing factor to the collision.”

Near the end of the meeting, residents said they wanted DOT to answer to the group as a whole.

Bentz declined to do so at Tuesday’s meeting, but said he could potentially organize a town hall in a month if he receives questions in advance.

He said this particular project has already involved much more outreach than usual.

“But that’s okay. We scale public involvement and outreach based on the feedback we get,” Bentz explained.

DOT will have to resubmit its proposed acquisitions to the borough’s planning commission, since it pulled those plans last month. Bentz said DOT has already identified issues with their original preliminary plat, like the location of a septic tank they were not aware of, and will need to make revisions before they do so.

DOT has not yet released its timeline for the project moving forward. However, Bentz said a rehabilitation of the section of the Seward Highway that runs through Moose Pass is badly needed now.

“We haven’t been down here with a real road project since 1950,” he said.

That’s when the roadway was originally built. It hasn’t been improved since.

“This is the last stretch of the Seward Highway that can say that,” Bentz said.

After the open house, DOT officials met individually with more than 30 Moose Pass property owners about their concerns regarding the project.

Smart had his meeting Thursday and said he plans to send a survey out to the community members who had these meetings to gather reactions to the interactions.

“So as far as Preserve and Protect Moose Pass, it’s a wait and see right now. But I don’t think the future is as bright as we’d like it to be,” Smart said.

Still, Moose Pass organizers said they’re encouraged that their activism so far has already delayed the project and brought attention to their cause.

DOT is hoping to begin construction on the project in 2025.

You can find the original story here.

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Local News Alaska Department of TransportationMoose PassKenai Peninsula
Riley Board is a Report For America corps member covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL. A recent graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied linguistics, English literature and German, Board was editor-in-chief of The Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper, and completed work as a Kellogg Fellow, doing independent linguistics research. She has interned at the Burlington Free Press, covering the early days of the pandemic’s effects on Vermont communities, and at Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife, where she wrote about culture and folklife in Washington, D.C. and beyond. Board hails from Sarasota, Florida.
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