Lots of you are justifiably scared that state, city and private traffic planners have, well, gone loopy on us. It’s time for some straight talk about threats you’ve heard that traffic experts would actually build a new highway through Anchorage’s densest neighborhoods, and maybe even through your kitchen.
Here’s the skinny. These folks aren’t necessarily nuts. They’re just messing with you. The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) probably requires them to pretend they are considering completely insane highway route alternatives through Anchorage that, from the mail I’m receiving, have scared the bejesus out of many of you. What they haven’t told you is that most of their proposed route alternatives have almost no chance of moving forward.
I was pretty blunt about this at a recent Rogers Park Community Council meeting. I felt I had to be as I watched “Silent Scream” looks on dozens of faces as neighbors heard a presentation on what we’ll call, the “Right Smack Through Rogers Park” route proposal. I received a sheepish grin from the presenter when I said this: That many of the proposed routes – like the Rogers Park one that would cut through millions of dollars of new road and sidewalk construction the state and city just paid for - are “fake”.
The planners can’t admit that. But I can say it, and I have to say it because the planners are scaring people. They are, as Elaine once said in a Seinfeld episode that’s too off color to detail in a family newsletter, “fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.” Or at least I hope they are.
Highway to Highway: What It Is and Isn’t
Anchorage planners have long talked about connecting the Glenn Highway coming in to Anchorage from the North, to the Seward Highway south of town. Right now Anchorage traffic is increased by the fact that people have to drive through the core of midtown Anchorage and Fairview to make it between these two highways. So, our long range plans have always mentioned that a highway like this is needed. That’s the easy part.
A few years ago I, former friend and Assemblyman Allan Tesche, and members of the Fairview Community Council worked to get language in the Long Range Transportation Plan, and other planning documents, stating that if this highway connector ever went through Hyder Street in Fairview, it would be done in a way that tied the neighborhood together with a sunken road, and street level green space. We said that IF this project happened, we wanted Ingra and Gambell Streets, currently high traffic areas, to become quiet town centers with nicer, quieter residential space. With statements from planners that they understood Fairview’s concerns, many neighborhood residents became more open minded about the project, and saw it as a potential boost for the neighborhood. The Fairview Community Council has expressed a willingness to listen to proposals if planners keep their commitments that the project will enhance the neighborhood, and not just divide it with a concrete highway. Some, especially those living on Hyder Street, don’t think much of this alternative either.
Until this year no one seriously considered any routes other than the Hyder alternative, and one that skirted east of the edges of Muldoon, around town. I never once heard serious discussion of routes through Rogers Park, through Airport Heights and the Eastridge Condominium neighborhood, or through Orca Street in Fairview. Follow the link to find maps of the alternative—scroll halfway down the page and you’ll find links to each alternative. (http://www.highway2highway.com/Past_Events/Sept2009_Public_Open_House.html).
Now, all of a sudden these “alternatives” are on maps all over the city, scaring people all over the city. Why all the new alternative routes all of a sudden?
Because NEPA – a well intended law that often forces developers to consider the least environmentally degrading options before moving forward – requires that planners consider all reasonable project alternatives. If planners don’t do this, a project can be challenged. So (I don’t know this for sure, but feel confident my suspicions are right) planners have picked a number of “alternative” routes that no one is seriously considering. That’s good legally. That’s bad for people whose bejesus is being scared out of them by planners who have to pretend they are considering all these alternatives seriously.
One other thing about this project. It’s estimated to cost $550 million, give or take a few hundred million. I recognize traffic could be eased by this project. But I can’t say I know it’s worth that kind of money. Let me toss out a few thoughts here. And, really, I plan on keeping an open mind when considering this project, and the traffic problems we face.
For $6 million, we could have a real college financial aid plan that doesn’t rank us worst in the nation. For $200,000 we could erase a 9 month waiting list at Alaska’s heroin addiction treatment centers so people who want to stop using heroin don’t keep, out of addiction, engaging in felony drug transactions that endanger our neighborhoods and enrich their drug dealers.
For a fraction of the $550 million cost we could increase educational success by leaving the ranks of the 9 remaining states that don’t offer optional statewide pre-kindergarten education to families. Children with good home development, or good pre-k earn more, go to college in higher numbers, and end up in jail less than those who don’t have that option. Or, for a fraction of the $550 million, we could help ease Tudor Road traffic. Or we could save the money for other projects.
In fairness, the federal rules attached to much of this $550 million require that it be spent on road projects. But you get the point. I’m not spending that kind of money before ranking the project with other priorities. And much of the money we spend will have to be state funds that could go to other things, or be placed in the state’s dwindling savings accounts. And for $550 million, there might be greater road priorities.
OK. Now that I’ve said all this, I have to also say that you should take these route alternatives seriously enough that you make your voices heard. The Highway to Highway project is in its infancy, and you need to express your concerns if there’s a route that scares you. Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail your them to Julianne Hanson, H2H Project Office, 820 E. 15th Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501.
Senator Johnny Ellis and I have expressed our opposition to many of these routes, and said the Hyder route, IF done smartly, and in a way the residents of Fairview support, may be worthy of discussion. But you should chime in too. Because in government, weird things happen. If you stay silent, a route no one ever took seriously might gain some traction. We don’t want the fake fake fake fake to become real.
As always, let us know if we can help, or if you wish to share any concerns.