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Public examines chosen route for proposed Anchorage U-Med road

Sean Doogan
More than 150 Anchorage residents shrugged off the city's first significant snowfall in weeks to attend a review of a controversial road project that would bring a northern access point to the congested U-Med area, and which some critics see as a foregone conclusion. Courtesy Dowl HKM

More than 150 people filled the multi-purpose room of East High School in Anchorage late Tuesday evening to review the recently announced route chosen for the Northern Access to U-Med road project. The path would connect Elmore Road with South Bragaw Street -- bisecting through seven-tenths of a mile of wooded and swampy property between the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University campuses.

The 80-foot wide right-of-way for the road would cut through property owned by UAA, APU, Providence Alaska Medical Center, The Southcentral Foundation, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and the Municipality of Anchorage. The area is among the fastest growing employment centers in the city, and the road is supposed to alleviate road congestion and provide more access for the people who work there, an estimated 11 percent of the city's workforce.

The Northern Access to U-Med project was funded last year by the Alaska Legislature and identified as a critical need by both the state and the municipality. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said traffic through the main access to the area -- which also includes Alaska Native Medical Center, and a psychiatric hospital and juvenile correctional facility -- is over-capacity during peak hours, with an average of 9,000 vehicles per day going down its narrow pavement. The road -- now only 20 percent designed -- would allow more access into the area on the north side of the UAA campus and the end of Elmore road -- which ends next to Providence Hospital and the new UAA sports complex being built. The road's estimated to cost $19.4 million dollars.

Stewart Osgood, project manager for Dowl HKM, the engineering firm overseeing the project, said it could potentially handle as many as 17,000 cars per day, but is only projected to see about half that traffic when it first opens. Osgood said the road route makes sense because of where people who work there are coming from.

"49 percent of the traffic that goes through the area is coming from the North and the East," Osgood said.

Local opposition

But ever since it was first proposed in the late 1980's by then-Mayor Tom Fink, the roadway has faced stiff opposition from area community councils and those who don’t want to see the green space disturbed for another road. And that opposition was on full display at East High Tuesday night as the Alaska Department of Transportation, the Municipality of Anchorage and Dowl HKM rolled out their preferred route for the roadway.

The project plan met with both support and opposition by the people who showed up to review it on Tuesday evening as the first significant snowfall in many days blanketed the city.

"I have mixed feelings about the project," U-Med area resident Joanie Nardini said. Nardini said she used to work in the district and believed the roadway was needed to alleviate traffic congestion, but now said she isn't sure if eliminating more green space to build the road is a good idea. Others were far more certain of their take on the road.

"I call it the 'P-U Med' project because it stinks," George Faust, another area resident and avid trail user said as he looked over the large project posters that dotted the East High multi-purpose room. "It's a park, it is a jewel in the middle of the city," Faust said.

Faust and others, including three area community councils, want the road project stopped. They argue it will bring too much cut-through traffic to the district -- vehicles that are not going to or from the area, but using the roadway as a shortcut to somewhere else. Opponents of the road plan also point out that it will be put through marshland on UAA property. And then there's the new 5,000-seat UAA sports complex, which is being built right next to the end of Elmore Road.

"That's the real reason this road is going through," said Mike Reidell, who lives near the proposed route. "UAA couldn't get funding to punch a road through to the complex, so this is what we are getting."

Reidell and a group of other area residents said they are looking at legal options to stop the project.

Shortest of four options

The project's engineers acknowledged the challenges of building the roadway through the wetland and some additional conflicts with area utility lines, but said that the route chosen last week and rolled out to the public Tuesday, was the best choice for a new access point into the U-Med District. The route is the shortest of the four that were ultimately considered, and has a reduced speed limit of 35 mph to ease both noise and safety concerns for the tightly packed area.

Project engineers, state and city officials are hoping that since a route has finally been chosen for the road, people living and working in the area may be able to help it finish the project's design. The preliminary design includes three turning circles and up to three raised pedestrian crossings. It also includes a sidewalk, in-street bike lanes and a separated path for bikes and skiers. But as much as 80 percent of the road design has yet to be finalized.

"We are hoping people can help us to make the road as good as it can be," Jim Amundsen, chief of DOT's highway design group said. Amundsen said even staunch opponents of the project may have good ideas to improve it.

So far, the project has survived an effort by the Anchorage Assembly to pull its funding late last year, and a current bill proposed in the Alaska Legislature by Democrats Sen. Berta Gardner and Rep. Andy Josephson to eliminate the $20 million in funding approved by state lawmakers last year.

Some at Tuesday night's meeting said they are still holding out hope that the roadway can be stopped -- but that appears unlikely. The road is in line with UAA's master plan for future development, is on land that is not specifically designated for park use, and has been identified as a critical need by both the city of Anchorage and the state of Alaska. And the road project is moving forward. It is undergoing environmental review and permitting -- which should be done by the spring. After that the plan is to complete the final roadway design and begin construction in 2015. The road is expected to be open for use by the late summer of 2015, with project completion in 2016.

Reidell, who is still organizing opposition to the road project said that even some members of his own family have given up fighting it.

"My wife stayed home," Reidell said. "She is convinced it can't be stopped."

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com