The new draft environmental assessment on the $100 million Haines Highway Improvement Project is out and ready for locals to weigh in.

The contentious project has been in the works for nearly 10 years but officials say with the changes made in this assessment, there’s a good chance construction could start next year.

Jim Scholl is the project’s environmental coordinator with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. He’s been working on the improvement task since 2009. Scholl says the new plan takes into account the more than 250 remarks submitted in 2013.

“We made some realignments in the highway,” Scholl says. “What we did was we reduced the amount of passing zones so that we could reintroduce some curvature and avoid some of the most sensitive areas that were identified.”

Changes also include removing fewer trees in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, proposing a new turnout at Mile 20.5 to alleviate impacts to eagle viewing, offering arrangements of logs, root wads, and boulders in and on the riverbank to encourage healthier fish habitat. It is planning to replace the Chilkat River Bridge.

The highway was originally constructed in 1943 and has undergone plenty of upgrades over the years.  According to the project website, this renovation will bring the last portion of the road – from Mile 3.5 to Mile 25.3 -up to a 55 mph design standard by realigning, widening and straightening portions of the roadway. The project got off the ground back in 2005, but funding fell short in 2006 and the project was suspended until 2008. That first environmental assessment was released in 2013 and residents and local agencies submitted a long list of concerns. So DOT went back to the drawing board. The revised assessment was released on Oct. 5.

If the EA is given the nod, road upgrades would happen over the next six to eight years.

The public has until Nov. 6 to submit a comment. DOT’s Scholl says

“Once we get those comments in, take a look at them and address them, then federal highways will make a decision,” he says. “If there is no significant impact, federal highways will issue a finding of no significant impact. And that’s what we’re hoping for. Then we can go ahead and build it.”

Construction on the first segment – mile 3.5 to 12 – could begin as early as fall 2016.

Lynn Canal Conservation president Eric Holle said, while he hasn’t read the entire draft yet, it appears from reading the summary that there is still work to do on the assessment.

“From what I’ve seen in the executive summary, it looks like some things have improved but until we spend a week or two analyzing every curve that they plan on straightening, the jury will be out,” Holle says.

Holle adds that years when the studies were done to see where eagles prefer to perch and roost, were low as far as how many raptors gathered at the council grounds.

“Until there’s a study that is done or this study is continue during one of those high population years, we’re not going to know which of those trees is crucial or not. I’m not convinced that they won’t be doing harm to the eagle population,” he says.

The department is also developing a lasting solution to mud slide areas between Miles 19 and 23. On Friday, three slides closed the highway for several hours at 19-mile, with two other slides further up the road.

DOT and the Federal Highway Administration consulted various groups to come up with the new EA including the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get input on the redesign efforts. Wildlife experts and cultural consultants completed additional field studies and those are available online.

Beth Peluso is the communications manager for the Audubon Alaska. Like Holle, she hasn’t yet had a chance to read through the entire draft but there a few things that jumped out at her from her initial scan. She says she would like to see more alternatives in the revised plan.

“And it seems like they really dismissed the idea of having an alternative in there with a lower speed limit which is what the Audubon and other groups and members of the public were asking them to look at,” she says. “They’re not including that in there which is really kind of disappointing.”

Public workshops and a public hearing are slated in Haines from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the high school on Wednesday, Oct. 28. DOT will also meet with the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory group on Oct. 27. Residents can submit comments to Copies of the draft are available at the Haines and Klukwan libraries or you can find a link to the assessment here.