A state road project designed to upgrade and improve 22 miles of the Haines Highway is slated to begin spring of 2014, pending approval of the project’s environmental analysis.
From miles 3.5 to 25.3, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are proposing to straighten curves, widen shoulders, increase sight distances, replace the Wells Bridge and address long-term solutions to rock slide problems near miles 19 and 23.
The first phase of construction, to begin in spring of 2014, will be from Mile 21 to 25.3.
The road will expand from 28 to 36 feet due to the widening of both shoulders from two to six feet. “To do that we have to place some fill in waters,” said Jim Scholl, the project’s environmental coordinator. The entire project will require approximately 22 acres of fill in the Chilkat River.
According to DOT’s “Essential Fish Habitat Assessment,” the project has taken steps to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to streams and the Chilkat River. Measures include the incorporation of passing zones instead of passing lanes, realigning and/or creating enhanced fish stream habitat and replacing culverts to meet fish passage standards.
In addition to the fish stream habitat assessment, DOT has also completed wetland and stream vegetation mapping, two bald eagle nest surveys, a cultural and archeological resources survey, a subsistence use survey, and a conceptual mitigation plan, Scholl said at a presentation last month in Haines.
“Since we began this project in 2006, we’ve had an interdisciplinary team of resource agencies working together. We’ve been keeping them informed and getting their thoughts. I believe that we have done as good a job as possible addressing concerns,” Scholl said.
Mario Benassi, a local naturalist who spoke during Scholl’s presentation at the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council meeting Feb. 21, expressed concern that both the construction and the expanded highway would damage bald eagles and their habitat.
Because the road is being brought up to 55 mph standards by straightening of curves and increasing of sight distances, drivers will be capable of going even faster than they can now, presenting a danger to eagles that use the highway’s unobstructed space as a flight corridor, Benassi said.
Benassi said he pointed this out to Scholl, who questioned whether there is evidence to support that higher speed zones see more eagle deaths and injuries.
“(Scholl) actually said he felt there were no studies that showed that eagles were impacted by increased speed. He also said that he felt straightening the road would make it safer for humans because of the curves and so forth... Our contention is that if the road is straightened enough to go 55 mph, the tendency in America is to go 70,” Benassi said.
In addition to pushing for a 35-45 mph zone through the preserve, Benassi is also requesting artificial perches and nesting platforms be installed to compensate for the trees that will be removed or altered during construction.
Regarding the critical habitat area in the bald eagle preserve, Scholl said during the Feb. 21 meeting DOT is moving the road to avoid construction in the area. “DOT doesn’t want to mess with it at all. So what we did is we moved the road uphill; the downhill side is where the critical habitat area is adjacent to the road... Again, we’re not altruistic; we just don’t want to jump through a whole bunch of hoops and degrade that critical habitat area if we can move the road. So we did,” Scholl said.
The project will still need to acquire several permits for construction and blasting that occur within range of bald eagle nests and habitat, Scholl said. Those will be acquired during the construction phases in which they arise, he said.
Scholl said the environmental assessment also will show private lands DOT needs to work on during the project. “What we will show is what’s planned. There will be a small graphic for each driveway that shows the existing grade of the driveway, the proposed grade of the highway and the width. What we want to do is maintain what folks have... We may or may not be able to live up to that, but that’s the goal,” Scholl said.
The slide zone at 23 Mile will be tackled during this first phase of construction, Scholl said, and will include raising the road’s grade by 18 feet using “four gigantic concrete box culverts,” Scholl said.
The draft environmental assessment will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) this month, Scholl said. He anticipates a “finding of no significant impact.” The assessment will become available for public comment once FHWA signs off on it, which should be in May 2013.
A public hearing on the environmental assessment is set for June.