Haines residents look at a map of the Haines Highway at a workshop Wednesday evening. (Jillian Rogers)

Haines residents look at a map of the Haines Highway at a project information meeting in October. The highway improvement project will begin in 2017. (Jillian Rogers)

The Haines Highway improvement project has been a long time in the making, but with another hurdle cleared, the venture is moving forward. After years of studies, and back and forth with agencies and the public, the Alaska Department of Transportation announced this week that final environmental documents are available for review. The first phase of the project is set to get underway by next summer.

Haines Highway commuters will have to start factoring construction wait times into their daily drives starting next summer.

The $100 million highway reconstruction will last for up to eight years, and will begin in 2017.

On Tuesday, DOT, along with the Federal Highway Administration, released the 450-page Final Revised Environmental Assessment, and the Finding of No Significant Impact, paperwork to the public.

“The good news is, from the department’s standpoint, it’s been 12 years in the making to get this environmental document stamped and approved by the Federal Highway Administration,” says DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow. “So the first phase that we’re going to move forward with is Mile 3.5 to 12, before we can do that we have to get the (Army) Corps (of Engineers) permit for the entire project, and this project covers Mile 3.5 to Mile 25.3 on the Haines Highway.”

The first phase will likely take two summers to complete, with the remainder of the project construction scheduled up to 2023. Woodrow says the initial phase will go out to bid early in the new year. Around 90 percent of the development will be funded with federal highway money, while the other 10 will come from a State of Alaska match.

“The first phase, from Mile 3.5 to 12 will be about $37 million for construction, that’s the engineer’s estimate right now.”

The project brings the route up to 55-mile-per-hour standards, according to DOT, by widening the shoulders to six feet on both sides and realigning most sharp curves, allowing for safer passing. It will improve recreational access, replace the Chilkat River Bridge, and help stabilize banks along the section of highway prone to mud slides during the rainy seasons.

When the first environmental assessment came out in July, 2013, the department received more than 255 comments about the plan. Many concerns arose about the potential harm to sensitive ecosystems along the highway. The agencies went back to the drawing board and came out with a revised assessment in the fall of 2015. That one got about 70 comments. Many of the concerns raised were the same – fears around the impacts to sensitive wildlife habitat.

“We’ve done two public comment periods, we’ve including those comments to the best of our ability as part of this Finding of No Significant Impact that was just released today,” Woodrow says.

The documents outline steps taken to avoid delicate areas along the Chilkat River and in the Bald Eagle Preserve. For example, the number of realigned passing zones has been decreased from the original proposal to cut down on disruption in the preserve, and lessen impacts to eagles and the trees they nest in.

“We were able to design features that met different user groups’ and the public’s concerns, especially how it related to the natural environment with the Bald Eagle Preserve as well as the river habitat for returning salmon.”

There was also an outcry for more plan alternatives, to which the agencies replied that they considered a wide range of alternatives and ultimately chose the reised plan they found to have no significant impacts.

DOT sorted all the feedback it received over the past two public comment periods into categories. The feedback included a lot of comments touting the project as necessary due to safety concerns, and plenty that expressed a variety of concerns over harmful  impacts.

“We’re confident that the department has made the changes that meet the public’s expectations of being environmentally sensitive when we’re going through with reconstructing this section of highway,” Woodrow says.

According to the assessment, the new plan will minimize the amount of clearing required adjacent to the Bald Eagle Preserve, and the department will conduct more environmental studies to address the potential impact to bald eagles in the affected area. Adding more “woody debris” and vegetation around rock embankments along the river to replace lost fish habitat is also on the list of design tweaks.

Woodrow says some adjustments might be made to the construction schedule for major summer events in Haines, especially the Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay.

And while the comment period is up, Woodrow says questions about the project can still be sent to haineshighway@alaska.gov.

The documents are available for review at the Haines Public Library and Klukwan Library or find them here.

Calls to some members of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council were not returned by press time.