[Originally published at Mt. View Forum on March 1, 2014. Republished with permission.]
When I was first in Anchorage in 1971, UAA’s Goose Lake campus felt like the edge of civilization — as if you could walk away from the parking lot at Alaska Methodist University and right into a wild area leading directly to a path to a mountain valley above the tree line, without ever seeing any sign of human habitation. Most but not all of this feeling is now gone. With the proposal of the “U-Med Northern Access Road,” we seem determined to eradicate it entirely.
The project would join the northern part of Bragaw (north of Northern Lights) to the southern portion, now known as Elmore Rd., running from 36th all the way south to Rabbit Creek (but there’s a break or two in the southern leg before there — as an arterial, it goes no further than Abbott Rd.). The northern end terminates at the outer edge of the Mt. View neighborhood. When all the sections are joined, this will be one of the longest roads in the Anchorage bowl.
I attended a Public Open House about the road project on Feb. 18. There were at least a couple hundred people there, with about half seemingly against the project, and the other half undecided but interested in finding out more. Dowl HKM President and road design engineer Stewart Osgood offered a presentation, followed by a Q&A session where around 20 questions from the public were fielded.
Only one questioner seemed very positive about the road.
Osgood noted that around 250 written comments had been received thus far, and they fell into four main categories:
By placing scare quotes around the word “park,” DOWL injects a healthy dose of scorn, as if to say: “No, dear reader, this parcel is not a park, nor has it ever been. It is land, owned by UAA, to be developed — and the fact that it is a large, intact chunk of boreal forest, wetland and wildlife habitat is immaterial.”
Not skeptical yet? Well, what if you asked “will sacrificing the pristine landscape significantly cut down on my commute time?” The answer, it appears, is no, according to DOWL’s own 2011 study (see page numbers 50-52; pages 58-60 of the PDF). The data suggests rush-hour travel will decrease, at best, less than five minutes.
The haphazard prioritization of a big ticket road project that doesn’t actually do anything productive, while destroying an ecosystem and little corner of urban wilderness that means so much to so many, should cause us all pause. The general public often have a much different perspective than project managers who can simply snowmachine out to their cabins, or drive down to Whittier and go out on their boat over the weekend.
Reasonable people may disagree about whether or not Anchorage has a traffic problem. Sure, there are times when it gets frustrating making your way across town in a vehicle. But it’s never as bad as what you will find in Seattle, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Why do we have traffic jams at all, given our small population (especially in terms of residents per square mile)? The answer is simple: Anchorage uses a bad development pattern. We keep widening existing roads or building new ones, without seeing congestion decrease. We should consider this, before we choose to simply start paving over our trails.
I have been reading a 2010 update of the book Suburban Nation, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. The authors are most famous for their architectural and design work in Seaside, Florida. Seaside is a planned community built deliberately to avoid Anchorage-style sprawl. The book is chock full of evidence of all of the negative by-products of following a sprawl model versus a traditional town model. Excerpts:
Why have suburban areas, with their height limits and low density of population, proved to be such a traffic nightmare? The first reason, and the obvious one, is that everyone is forced to drive. In modern suburbia, where pedestrians, bicycles, and public transportation are rarely an option, the average household currently generates thirteen car trips per day. Even if each trip is fairly short — and few are — that’s a lot of time spent on the road, contributing to congestion, especially when compared to life in traditional neighborhoods.
These daily trips often depend on what they call a “collector road,” which connects apartment complexes and housing divisions to malls and restaurants. “Every single trip from one component to another, no matter how short, must enter the connector,” Surban Nation concludes. “Thus, the traffic of an entire community may rely on a single road, which, as a result, is generally congested during much of the day.”
The stated purpose of the Feb. 18 open house was to select from four proposed routes. The “orange route,” the most direct, was declared the winner, and a slightly more detailed schematic was presented (above). The concept includes one traffic lane in each direction, three roundabouts, a bike lane on each side of the roadway, a wide sidewalk on one side, and three pedestrian overpasses (similar to those across Raspberry Road on the way into Kincaid Park).
Osgood said, “You’d think it would be easy to build a 7/10th of a mile long road section for $20 million, but the budget is actually really tight.” Indeed, the $20 million allocated seems low, considering there are still substantial issues associated with wetlands construction that DOWL has to deal with before construction begins. There will be a greater than typical extent of drainage infrastructure along the route; and it’s unclear how the road will integrate into the surroundings. Will the existing network of trails be reworked to tie into the new pedestrian bridges, or will trail segments be abandoned/orphaned in the process?
What will happen if $30 or $40 million is really needed to build the road as conceived? Will the State Legislature appropriate more funds? Or, more likely, will some of the non-vehicular amenities be cut?
Some have said that $20 million is inadequate, but it’s much easier to secure funding when you’re dealing with a half-finished project. With the current composition of the Anchorage Assembly, the Mayor’s office, the State Legislature, and the Governor’s office (all controlled by pro-development conservatives), now seems like the best time to green light the effort.
Local activist Walt Parker, a former head of the State Dept. of Transportation and a quiet voice of reason, said: “In the old days when a project like this would be proposed, we would start by asking simple questions. ‘Is it good for Anchorage?’ and ‘Would we be disadvantaged if we did not pursue it?’”
Our current process often skips these basic initial questions. That, in turn, tends to confuse the public. When the State hires DOWL HKM to facilitate a public process, they are doing so as a player with a large financial stake in the outcome. If the public, lawmakers and other stakeholders approve, DOWL is hired to design the road and administer its construction. It’s a lucrative gig.
We’re told we should trust their judgment. And to their credit, DOWL has overseen other high quality road projects, including the southern portion of Elmore Rd., East 15th Ave., and several others. They really are capable of doing better jobs with roads than in the old days (missteps we are still living with every day). That includes the integration of transit and trails, pedestrian and bike ways, and better safety and sense of place. But their jobs is to get things done, not to ponder whether or not a given road construction makes any sense for the people who live here. The public needs and deserves an impartial process.
This could have been a much different conversation, had the two universities and Providence Hospital made the case that this road is badly needed; that they can’t live without it. But that is not the argument supporting the project. Their position is ambivalent at best — yes, access is good; better access is always welcome. But does UAA have a Master Plan for its campus expansion? How does the road tie into it?
Isn’t there a scenario where UAA/APU/Providence would benefit by not expanding into the undeveloped area (especially with more two- and three-story buildings separated by large surface parking lots)? The 2011 report identified the northern part of the site as a “Community Engagement Zone,” but didn’t define the term, what they would like to build there, and why it needs to be in that location. Osgood noted that the northernmost of the three new roundabouts will eventually link up with an east-west internal access road that will serve future university facilities. But UAA might have better options, to redevelop and re-purpose existing sites that already have utilities and road access.
One of the questions from the public on Feb. 18th went like this: Aren’t there more pressing needs we should be spending $20 million on?
Osgood said he couldn’t answer the question; that it’s out of his area of expertise and he assumed the question was rhetorical anyway. (It wasn’t.)
The Democratic Minority in the state legislature is trying to put the brakes on the project, so that Osgood isn’t forced to answer any more uncomfortable questions. Senator Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) introduced SB130, seeking to repeal the appropriation for the U-Med District Northern Access Project. It will be heard this Tuesday in the Senate Transportation Committee. The bill has no chance of passing unless some Republicans get on board. But it is a good opportunity to provide feedback, and I encourage anybody with concerns on the matter to contact your legislators.