State traffic planners eye upgrades to Glenn-Muldoon intersection

Nathaniel Herz

State transportation officials are planning a series of upgrades to the 40-year-old intersection of Muldoon Road and the Glenn Highway, after new development in the area has led to a surge in traffic.

At a public meeting on Tuesday, traffic planners from the Department of Transportation are set to unveil two different options for reconstructing the busy northeast Anchorage intersection, which was built in 1974 and has since been outgrown.

The 2008 opening of the Tikahtnu Commons mall to the north of the intersection has contributed to rising traffic volume that local residents, workers and shoppers say is causing slowdowns for traffic coming off the Glenn Highway, and driving on Muldoon Road. And people who want to cross the highway sometimes risk injury when they cut through traffic to bypass a circuitous pedestrian path -- a problem that state officials say they want to fix.

"This is an interchange that's had a good run, from the early '70s to now," said Scott Thomas, the transportation department's regional traffic and safety engineer. "We just outgrew it."

The growth includes a threefold increase in the number of cars heading north on Muldoon from the intersection.

Between 2008 and 2012, daily traffic volume rose from 6,700 to 23,750, according to numbers provided by the Department of Transportation.

Other area development also contributed to the jump, according to Thomas, including the opening of a new Veterans Administration clinic in 2010.

Some adjustments, like new signals, were made in 2008 to help meet the new demand, Thomas said. But the intersection is still not designed to handle the current traffic level, resulting in delays for turning drivers, and long lines of cars that sometimes back up onto the highway.

And, the overpass is actually too short for some trucks, which must pull off the highway to go around, then merge back on.

On Friday, it took a reporter nine-and-a-half minutes to drive the half mile to Tikahtnu Commons from an eastbound exit off the Glenn Highway. One shopper, Jason Lukasik, said he nearly skipped his stop at Sam's Club after seeing the traffic on the Muldoon overpass from the highway.

"From the time we tried to go over the bridge, it was bumper to bumper, stop, go, stop, go," he said, sitting in his pickup truck outside the store as his kids slept in the back seat. "We knew today it was going to be hectic."

The local community council doesn't have a strong position on how the intersection should be improved, but "everybody knows that it needs to be fixed," said Lorne Bretz, the president.

At the meeting Tuesday, state traffic planners and a local engineering firm will introduce two different options for reconstructing the intersection. One would mirror the current "partial cloverleaf" interchange, while the other would use a design called a "diverging diamond," according to Quinten Arndt, one of the state transportation officials working on the project.

Those projects will not move forward for years, and will likely cost tens of millions of dollars, said Thomas, the regional traffic planner. But in the meantime, the Department of Transportation is planning on spending approximately $4 million next year to build new signals that it says will smooth traffic flow, as well as help fix another problem caused by the influx of vehicles: a spike in the number of dangerous "angle crashes," where drivers are hit while trying to turn onto or across Muldoon.

Traffic planners take those T-bone type of crashes especially seriously, since they leave drivers and passengers more vulnerable to serious injuries than, say, a rear-end collision. And the number of angle crashes at the intersection has doubled since 2008, from fewer than three a year to seven or more, Thomas said.

The new signals, he added, "are trying to make it clear to everybody who has the right of way," because drivers have been "taking chances."

Officials also are aiming to improve the intersection for pedestrians. There's only one sidewalk on the Muldoon overpass, and walkers and cyclists must wind through a pair of tunnels to access it.

"There's a real roundabout," said Arndt. "It's a long way."

A third of pedestrians traveling through the intersection end up diverging from that path and risking encounters with traffic. That's according to counts conducted in advance of the reconstruction, said Steve Noble, a project manager with Dowl HKM, the engineering firm hired by the state.

"We're going to make the intersection a lot better, and it's going to shorten the distance" that people have to walk, Noble said in a phone interview.

The project will probably not, however, do much to stop pedestrians from cutting across the highway in an area to the west of the intersection.

An 11-year-old boy was killed last summer while trying to cross the highway there, but Noble said that the location where the accident took place is too far from the Muldoon intersection for the pedestrian improvements to make a difference.

Construction of the new interchange likely won't start until 2016 or later, once the Department of Transportation picks one of the two options and completes design and environmental permitting work.

Transportation officials have already met with local residents once to gather input, at a meeting in April, and they plan to get more at the meeting Tuesday.

Bretz, the community council president, said he was looking forward to hearing ideas about how the intersection could be improved.

"It'll be nice to see what they've come up with," he said. Among the community council's members, he added, "nobody's quite sure how to fix it -- we're just glad they're working on it."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.