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Construction could begin on multiple slow vehicle turnout lanes along the Sterling Highway from Soldotna to Homer as soon as the summer of 2014, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials confirmed Thursday.

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Kevin Jackson, DOT project manager, said his department is hoping to install about 13 pullover areas in order to ease traffic congestion, lower driver frustration and hopefully increase safety on the well-traveled road.

The project is part of the Highway Safety Improvement Project and is in its preliminary stages.

“The whole intent of the program is to try to find places where there are higher than normal accidents that can be corrected by some form of an engineering countermeasure, so to speak,” Jackson said. “We look for good bang for the buck.”

Currently, DOT is collecting feedback from residents about their thoughts on the project and where turnoffs could be best placed.

“This project was nominated to be a step in the right direction,” Jackson said. “Ultimately, what we would like to have are passing lanes out there, but that is more than we can accomplish under the Highway Safety Improvement Program project.”

The cost of the project is currently estimated around $8 million, Jackson said.

“That is a planning level estimate and those tend to change,” he said.

However, the funding will be derived from a reliable federal source through the Highway Safety Improvement Project, he said.

“Because it is so specifically defined, this HSIP project, it really is something that’s less susceptible to any of the variables that might come into play with these other projects,” said Rick Feller, DOT Central Area spokesman.

Feller said the turnout areas would be a “significant” contributor to making the drive from Soldotna to Homer safer for residents and visitors.

In the summer particularly, all along the Seward and Sterling highways, there is a diverse mix of traffic, Feller said. From hurried fishermen to locals looking to get on and off the road, commuting traffic, commercial trucks and small passenger cars — all different users might be going different speeds, he said.

“Whenever you can get that slow traffic out of the way, you lessen the kind of driver tension and anxiety that causes poor decisions because they don’t have to make a risky pass on a double yellow, they can just wait for the next pullout and know that they are going to get around that,” Feller said. “Compared to what we have now that number (of turnouts) might seem like a lot, but it could turn out that we might need another one or two as we work our way through the process.”

The turnouts will likely be about 12 feet wide and at least 600 feet long, or perhaps up to 1,000 feet long, but that depends on available funding, Jackson said.

“The more you can provide the better, maybe if we can provide 700 to 1,000 feet that would be preferable,” Jackson said. “It allows the people to pull off and more ability to get back up to speed and get back into traffic.”

Crews will soon start the process of developing, selecting and field-verifying chosen locations, working on environmental documents and starting to send out surveying crews this winter to begin the design process. Current proposed locations along the highway aren’t set in stone, he added.

Jackson said DOT will also likely host local public feedback meetings in the summer where residents can see the exact proposed locations of the pull-offs along the highway.

Residents can provide written comments to the DOT about the project before Jan. 10, 2012, by writing to: Brian Elliott, Regional Environmental Manager, DOT&PF Preliminary Design & Environmental, P.O. Box 196900, Anchorage, Alaska 99519-6900.

They can also contact Jackson at kevin.jackson@alaska.gov or at 269-0641.

“We really do rely upon the public process to define the project for us,” Feller said. “We put out what we think is the best concept to meet the needs that had been identified for us and then we go out to the public and say now we need your feedback.”

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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