New road segments are shown in teal and existing roads in fuchsia (Image from the Alaska Department of Transportation)

Construction has resumed on a $40 million road extension on northern Kupreanof Island that’s drawn controversy from the get-go. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month granted a wetlands permit for constructing new portions of the road and a boat ramp outside of Kake. But critics of the project and local governments are upset that the Army Corps has denied a request to hold a public hearing on the project.

The Kake Access Project will connect existing forest roads on northern Kupreanof and create a new boat ramp at Twelvemile Creek, 12 miles north of Petersburg. Once completed it will allow motorists to drive over 40 miles out of Kake, from one side of the island to the other. But it still leaves a 12-mile gap in road connection and a water crossing separating the communities. 

“Well the work started the 1st of April and their completion date for phase one was November 1, I think we’ve extended that to June 1st of next year just in case you know inclement weather comes in and delays them for three straight weeks, or four weeks and they can’t finish up the punch list items at the end,” said the Alaska Department of Transportation’s Joe Kemp, engineering manager on the project in an interview this week. “The plan is, is to be done this fall,” he said.

The state is contracting with international construction company Kiewit. Last year it granted that firm a contract for around $15.5 million for the first phase of work, regrading existing gravel forest roads. The new road segments and boat ramp authorized by this year’s Corps permit will drive the total cost for construction to around $34.5 million dollars. 

The source of the funding is a $40 million appropriation from the state legislature in 2012 and has been championed by Sitka Republican state Sen. Bert Stedman. He’s said it’ll improve transportation and economic opportunity for both communities. 

The road crosses Tongass National Forest land and the route follows one of several transportation easements granted to the state by Congress in 2005. The Federal Highway Administration looked into road and ferry connection between the two communities but stopped that work in 2016 over the high cost of operating ferries to complete the link.

But critics question the need for the road and spending so much state money  in a time when the state is short on cash.

Petersburg resident Becky Knight gathered 118 signatures in a single weekend last year asking for more scrutiny on the road construction. 

“For $40 million dollars I can think of 40 projects that would benefit far more people, even one project for a million dollars, that would benefit far more people, than this boondoggle out on north Kupreanof,” Knight said.

Petersburg’s borough assembly last November approved a resolution asking for a public hearing on the project before the state spent any more money on it.

Kake’s tribal government, the Organized Village of Kake joined with environmental groups Alaska Rainforest Defenders and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council asking the Corps to deny the wetlands permit. Olivia Glasscock is an Earthjustice attorney in Juneau who penned comments on behalf of the coalition.

“We were really disappointed on behalf our clients and partners that we are working with to learn that permits had been issued in the face of substantial concerns both in Petersburg and Kake about the impacts that this road will have and especially after the Army Corps failed to hold any sort of public hearings or provide additional comment periods or anything like that for the public,” Glasscock said.

The Army Corps said its project manager was not immediately available to interview about the agency’s decisions. KFSK obtained the Army Corp’s environmental assessment and decision document through the Freedom of Information Act.

The 62-page document released on May 7th list the road’s public benefits as more access to forest land and resources, which it says outweigh negative  impacts. The agency also responded to requests for public hearings by saying those would not serve to answer questions raised by critics of the project.

The filings also show the Army Corps won’t require any work to compensate for loss of over 14 acres of wetlands. It justified that decision by saying the project is designed to avoid wetlands whenever possible. 

The DOT’s Kemp said the state agency has addressed the issues raised by area residents and other government agencies. He said the company has started construction of around five and a half miles of new road and will also be doing the rehab work on the existing road system.

The DOT said Kiewit has told them about 30-45 workers would be on the project. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

This work will use up the remaining state appropriation. That means there are no immediate plans to close the gap between Petersburg and Kake.