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Site of fatal Seward Highway crash was already scheduled for safety improvements

The site of a multiple-vehicle collision on the Seward Highway that killed an Anchorage man and caused a 10-hour traffic jam Friday will see renovations in the future, including new turn lanes, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

The renovations, part of a major project in the works for years, are planned to reduce congestion and danger at the entrance to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, an increasingly popular tourist destination.

The wildlife center says it is already adding a new entrance several hundred feet north of the existing one, with better placement and visibility on the highway.

"It's specifically aimed at alleviating some of the dangerous spots on the highway," said Scott Michaelis, a spokesman for the center. "The incredibly unfortunate thing is this event happened in advance of the new entrance," he said, referring to Friday's crash.

The center, where visitors can see grizzly bears, moose, musk oxen and other Alaska animals in a park-like setting with the Chugach Mountains as a backdrop, has developed into a major draw for tourists. Many arrive on tour buses.

Attendance varies by day and weather but "easily 200,000" people visit over the course of a year, Michaelis said.

All of those people currently enter the center through a driveway that turns abruptly off the Seward Highway just north of a bridge and a curve in the road. There are no turn lanes from either direction.

Friday's crash, at Mile 79, happened when a northbound motorcoach carrying passengers from Seward to Anchorage struck a line of traffic that had slowed while a vehicle turned left into the wildlife conservation center.

The crash involved seven vehicles, including the tour bus, which rolled into oncoming traffic. Witnesses said an SUV struck it head-on, killing an Anchorage man, John Zollner III, who was driving with his family to Seward for a weekend of fishing and camping. Several others were hospitalized with injuries ranging from critical to minor. As of Monday evening, Alaska State Troopers had not released the names of the injured.

Troopers have not said whether driver error, a mechanical problem or some other factor was responsible for the bus rear-ending the other vehicles.

The driver of the tour bus, who has not been named, is on administrative leave, Josh Howes, the president of Premier Alaska Tours, said in an email.

Premier Alaska Tours is the owner and operator of the motorcoach, which it was contracting to The Park Connection and Alaska Tour & Travel.

Alaska State Troopers didn't respond to questions about why the road, the sole route to the Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage, remained completely closed for 10 hours, creating a monumental traffic jam on the eve of a sunny summer weekend.

The accident was the second fatality of the year on the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, according to DOT statistics. The first happened on another busy Friday in July, when a 58-year-old Anchorage motorcyclist was struck and killed in a pursuit with troopers.

There had not been a fatal accident on the section of road between Girdwood and the beginning of Turnagain Pass since 2012*, said Transportation Department spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy. But there have been "a number of severe crashes" without fatalities in the Portage area.

The state Department of Transportation says it plans to spend between $125 million and $175 million on a project to renovate the corridor between miles 75 and 90 of the Seward Highway, roughly between Girdwood and the sign that reads "Welcome to the Kenai Peninsula" visible to southbound motorists.

The project, funded with a mix of federal and state dollars, is a major undertaking that involves replacing eight bridges. It will take years to complete, and construction likely won't begin until 2017, McCarthy said.

The project is being undertaken in "anticipation of an increase in traffic" on an already busy stretch of highway, she said.

On average, about 4,000 vehicles per day drive on the Seward Highway between Potter Marsh and the start of Turnagain Pass, according to the DOT. But during the summer months the highway is up to three times busier. During the peak month of July, some 12,000 vehicles per day drive through the stretch where Friday's crash happened.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the last fatal accident on the stretch of highway between Girdwood and Turnagain Pass was in 2007. It occurred in 2012.

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