Project Would Fortify Eroding Bluff Near Sterling Highway

     The bluff between Mileposts 150 and 157 of the Sterling Highway has been slowly eroding the last several years. A plan to help stop the problem has been on an Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities improvement list since 2010.

     The current space between the highway and the bluff is only about 40 or 50 feet. That’s a little too close for comfort for Franco Venuti.

     “There’s a looming disaster out there,” he said.

     Venuti is the chair for the City of Homer Planning Commission. He brought up the issue at the end of last week’s regular meeting. 

     “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it.”

     The issue is included in the most recent Capital Improvement Plan list for the city. The document calls the Sterling Highway a “vital transportation corridor.” The city suggests realigning the highway away from the eroding area between those mileposts.

     The plan in place at the state level is called the Sterling Highway Erosion Response Project. It’s through the DOT. Jill Reese is a media liaison with the department. She said the project relies on three steps.

     “Excavating the saturated material from the bottom of the erosion hole, and then we’re going to be… putting in a layer of riprap. That’s a larger rock so that water can flow through. And then after that, they’ll put top soil and then re-vegetate. So it should end up giving the water a place to go without washing it out,” Reese said.

     She said the combination of sandy soil and groundwater flowing over the bluff has slowly caused this problem. Reese said it’s been eroding about one foot each year. And this project will essentially serve as a storm drain. 

     Plus, Reese said the DOT will be removing much of the problem soil and replacing it with tougher riprap, which doesn’t wash away. The project’s budget comes in at $4.8 million.

     “It’s not a cheap proposition. That does include buying some right-of-ways…. That process has begun and I think we’re… almost to the end of the purchase,” she said.

     Reese said she expects the bidding process for the project to begin around the first part of next year and construction could start as early as the spring. That’s if all goes according to plan. She said the DOT will monitor the area once the project is complete to make sure it’s working. 

     Reese said it’s always a possibility to move the highway over, but it’s not really considered a Plan B right now.

     “There’s so many different levels of eyes and different experiences and different disciplines that look at these plans, that we feel it’s a good one,” she said.

     Eroding bluffs aren’t just affecting the southern peninsula, though. The City of Kenai has been dealing with its own issues around the city’s northern limits. Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said officials at the local, borough and state levels have all stepped up to give an erosion mitigation project the green light. The plan hits a snag when it comes to getting funding from the federal level. 

     “The federal government has spent well over $4 million on studies and design already. This project is fairly far along in the process. It just needs a signature on a final decision document to find itself in a funding queue somewhere, and we just haven’t been able to get over that hump with the feds,” he said.

     Koch said he’s positive “all the stars will align” eventually for the project. He’d prefer that happened sooner rather than later.  

     “Both senators Murkowski and Begich sit either on the appropriations committee or appropriations committee subcommittee. So they’re in a spot… to be influential and they’re working hard for us.”