The Federal Transit Administration has blessed a final transit plan to access nordic ski facilities being started this summer on the south side of Hatcher Pass.
If all goes as planned, skiers will be gliding across 10 kilometers of scenic terrain shortly after the first snow flies in November.
Last week, the transit administration issued its record of decision on the project, marking the end of environmental studies and the beginning of design, land acquisition and construction.
"It's a great day for residents of the borough," Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assemblyman Jim Colver said in a press release. "After many years of waiting, we finally have the green light to build a new access road and world-class nordic ski trails."
The federal approval means $6 million in improvements for area skiers, including:
• A 1-mile access road off Edgerton Parks Road into southern Hatcher Pass.
• Parking for 210 vehicles and six buses.
• A transit facility.
For years, the borough has been planning nordic and alpine facilities in Hatcher Pass. It owns about 3,000 acres there and leases another 8,000 acres from the state. Federal money is funding the road and transit facility; the borough is funding the ski trails.
After previous efforts to partner with private developers on the project fell through, the Mat-Su Assembly pursued a more modest plan with Federal Transit Administration funding. That plan focuses on developing nordic skiing now while seeking additional money for a downhill ski area later.
"This is a big one to get behind us," project consultant Ron Swanson said of the federal approval. "Most (projects) take three to five years. This one took two years.
"When I say this time next year we'll be skiing there, it's not a pipe dream. It's reality."
Colony High cross-country ski coach Mark Strabel will wait until he's strapping on his skis at the trail head before celebrating.
"I won't completely believe it until it's really done," he said. "It's been a 30-year process."
But he loves the area.
"It reminds me a lot of Soldier Hollow, the 2002 (Utah) Olympic venue," said Strabel, who expects the new area will allow Mat-Su schools to host large prep races. "The terrain is just fantastic for skiing."
Crucial, perhaps, is that the area sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet, away from winds that typically scour Mat-Su snow.
"Wind patterns in Mat Valley are really strong but this area is out of the wind pattern most of the time," said Ed Strabel, Mark's father and a longtime Mat-Su ski booster.
Bill Spencer, Alaska's only Olympic cross-country skier in 1988, is a civil engineer with HDR in Anchorage these days. He's designing the trails.
"It's spectacular," he said. "I can hardly wait. It's a really nice open birch forest hillside with lots of nice streams running through it that will have to be crossed. It's open enough that the sun pours in there, and it gets a little bit of inversion effect. Pioneer Peak is right there, so it's pretty spectacular."
PHASE ONE FOR NOVICES
Phase one of the trails plan would build easier trails appropriate for beginners as well as high school ski racers. A second phase would add Olympic-quality trails, lights and other facilities. Valley athletes who want to ski a few kilometers after the sun sets have always had to drive at least to Chugiak to find lighted trails.
"We made quite an effort to lay out (phase one) so the downhills are not overly intimidating," said Spencer, who noted that the trails are already flagged and that the borough has purchased timber for the bridges. "There are lots of turns and stuff but we tried to make it so there's not a lot of high-speed turns that will intimidate people. There are some good climbs there for everybody."
Phase two, estimated to cost $4 million, would also include a chalet with food service and restrooms, an outdoor stadium for mass starts for racers and more parking. It is in the Mat-Su Borough Assembly's list of priorities seeking state funding.
The borough is working with the Mat-Su Ski Club planning construction, which will lean heavily on volunteer labor. Construction documents will go out to bid in the spring, with a paid contractor overseeing the work.
"Volunteers will take the $180,000 of available funds and turn it into $400,000," said Jeff Dillon, borough Community Development Department manager. "They'll double the money."
Dirt work on the trail won't start until the road is roughed in. Swanson expects trail work to begin in July.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL