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Nerka subdivision is finally getting paved after a bumpy financial road

An excavator clears brush along the Nerka Loop Road. May 11, 2023.
Izzy Ross

The potholes that dot the Nerka subdivision roads in Dillingham can be pretty intense. Everyone has their own way of dealing with them. Some drive over quickly while others hold up traffic as they crawl by. It's easy to understand why the roads are getting an upgrade.

This summer, construction will start on 1.6 miles of road that will be dug up, filled back in, leveled and paved.

The Curyung Tribal Council has spent over a decade working on the project to pave the Nerka subdivision, and those involved have high hopes for improvement in the neighborhood.

The construction costs around $6 million and encompasses Nerka Drive, Nerka Loop and Widgeon Lane. That price tag does not include planning or design. The other streets — Kingfisher, Sandhill, Teal and Mallard — won't be paved but will have right-of-way clearing.

Small bits of fluorescent pink and blue flagging tape fluttered from trees along the roads in early May. The scent of freshly-cut pine fills the air as an excavator moved piles of brush off the roadside.

The construction work will begin in July and will include tearing out the old dirt roads, then packing down a new foundation so they can pave it. Isaac Pearson, the project engineer, said the main goal is to improve public safety around the subdivision.

“There's also going to be a pedestrian pathway that's installed adjacent to the road," he said. "It's essentially just an extended shoulder similar to how Kanakanak Road is, where there's a rumble strip separating the pedestrian pathway.”

That pathway will follow Nerka Drive and continue along the entire loop.

Curyung Tribal Council First Chief JJ Larson said the biggest challenge for the project has been funding. The tribe started putting aside money in 2009 through the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Transportation Program. Those savings will pay for over half of the work.

“This project has been on the books since before I've been at the tribe,” Larson said. “We finally had enough funding through the BIA to do a portion of the project. And our tribe felt like that wasn't enough. We didn't want to just do a portion of the project.”

Even after a decade of saving, the tribe was still short on money to complete it. So the council decided to use additional funds.

“Our council made the decision that we want to get this project done now, while we have the funding to do it,” Larson said. “The design was ready. It was shovel ready. We had community meetings, got feedback, and so we were ready to do it. Let's do it.”

Larson said the tribal council is excited to keep making strides with the project — and give the neighborhood a boost.

“The sidewalk offers a place for people to not have to get up to Lake Road to recreate outside,” he said. “We see it as a big improvement for our community and we're happy that, with the BIA and our other funding, we could make this project happen.”

Since the roads are within city limits, the City of Dillingham has been involved in the discussions from the beginning. City officials are on board with the project, and engineers say the changes will make it easier for Public Works to plow and maintain the roads.

Patty Buholm, the city’s director of planning and grants management, said it will also make the neighborhood safer — along with new streetlights, the wider roads will give more space for folks to walk and wait for the school bus.

“The safety aspects of this road improvement are huge for the citizens that live within the subdivision,” she said. “So it really is a positive project and hopefully we can just get through this project with minimal hiccups and lessened aggravation to the residents of the subdivision."

Dawna Pearson, the BIA transportation division’s contact for the project, applauded the collaboration between the city and the tribe.

“This is just an absolutely great opportunity for the City of Dillingham, that the tribe is supporting the community,” she said. “We love to see good coordination between tribes and local governments and the communities that they live in.”

Anyone who’s lived with construction in a small town knows it can throw a wrench into the flow of traffic. Bristol Engineering and JJC Enterprises have developed a plan for managing traffic during the roadwork. Traffic updates will be posted regularly to Facebook.

First Chief Larson is also a commercial fisherman who lives in the neighborhood. He’s planning to tow his boat out to the downtown yard ahead of the summer fishing season.

“I have my commercial fishing boat at my house,” he said. “I'm not sure how many people in Nerka are in that same situation, but if I'm moving my boat, I'm gonna want to do that before that construction starts happening.”

Everyone who’s fishing will likely be out on the water when the actual roadwork begins in early July. But when they come back, Bristol Engineering plans to work with everyone to get the boats safely through the construction. And they ask boat owners to let them know when they plan to move vessels as soon as possible.

Isaac Pearson, with Bristol Engineering, said they’ve just about finished clearing the brush, and expect to start work laying new telephone and data lines in mid-June, once the barge arrives with the materials. Road construction starts in July and will continue through mid-October.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.
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