New road through Anchorage’s U-Med District no boon to moose

Rick Sinnott
Will a new road through Anchorage's U-Med District mean more collisions between the large ungulates and vehicles? Photo courtesy of Glenn Flothe / ADN reader submission

The thousands of miles of highways and streets in Anchorage are designed to make travel more efficient and convenient. For humans. But every mile of road is making it damned inconvenient to be a moose.

The proposed connection of Bragaw Street and Elmore Road through the University-Medical (U-Med) District is a case in point. Only seven-tenths of a mile long, the road will include three overpasses to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and skiers.

But any moose attempting to perambulate through the district after the road is built will encounter another gauntlet of urban traffic. Its pedestrian overpasses aren’t designed to accommodate moose.

Can’t see the moose for the traffic

It’s little use denying the need for a new road. Transportation studies have observed that the U-Med District is one of the busiest destinations in Anchorage. According to the Alaska Department of Transportation, roads serving the district are over capacity.

Like deer in many other cities, moose are bound to cross roads. They must move to find food and shelter, sidestep predators and birth their calves. The Anchorage Bowl is the primary wintering area for local moose. Due to the relative paucity of roads in the area, the wetlands and woods of the U-Med District support one of the few remaining moose movement corridors in the city.

Consequently, moose use the wetlands bisected by the proposed route and will continue to do so after the road is built. Although the project includes three pedestrian overpasses, no wildlife-crossing structures or fences are planned.

The Northern Access to the University and Medical District Reconnaissance Study Report acknowledges that the U-Med District is an “important wildlife corridor through north Anchorage.” Nevertheless, the 82-page report mentions moose just once, confirming that they are “common” throughout the project area. In comparison, some 19 pages -- nearly a quarter of its bulk -- assess the U-Med roads’ “level of service” by dissecting the average delay, in seconds, at 12 nearby intersections during morning and afternoon rush hours. Similarly, bicycles and pedestrians and their accommodations are mentioned at least 23 and 36 times, respectively. But moose didn’t seem to trigger any anxiety.

It seems as though avoiding moose-vehicle collisions would be a higher priority.

Safety first?

Efficiency and convenience are two important considerations in highway design. Safety is another. A half-ton package of meat and bone is the last thing most motorists expect to encounter in their lane. Yet 100-200 moose are killed on Anchorage’s roads annually, according to the state Department of Transportation and Alaska State Troopers. Forget the moose for a moment. Inadvertent collisions cause a lot of pain and suffering to people, too.

Without a road-crossing structure, moose will cross the road at grade. The project hopes to avoid moose-vehicle collisions by providing roundabouts and lighting -- and by restricting vehicle speeds to 30 mph.

It’s a vain hope. Many arterial roads in the U-Med District have posted speed limits of 40 or 45 mph. Two roads that bisect the part of the district with the most pedestrians -- Providence and UAA drives -- are 35 mph zones. Vehicles traveling north on Bragaw Street may legally go 45 mph. Does DOT really believe people will slow to 30 mph when their tires hit the new road?

In previous projects, DOT has justified high speed limits based on the speeds motorists actually drive. If DOT expects people to drive 30 mph through the U-Med District to avoid colliding with moose, why didn’t the agency lower the posted speed limit on Minnesota Drive to 50 mph instead of spending more than a million dollars to fence it?

Moose are more vulnerable to high-speed traffic, but even relatively slow-moving vehicles hit moose, and most motorists drive faster than the posted speed. According to the 2012 Alaska Highway Safety Annual Report, 81 percent of drivers admit to driving faster than 35 mph in a 30 mph speed zone. Ambulances hurrying to the hospital will also exceed the posted speed limit.

The new road is likely to have moderate to heavy traffic, especially on evenings when events are scheduled in the new UAA arena. DOT estimates an average daily traffic volume of 14,602 vehicles by 2030. That’s more traffic than Providence Drive, almost as much as Boniface Parkway south of East Northern Lights Boulevard. And it’s unclear whether the 2011 traffic projection took the sports arena into account. Large events are expected to attract more than 1,000 vehicles.

It might help engineers to think of moose like water. Both are forces of nature. A good engineer should do his or her best to get both water and moose safely across the road.

Rocky solution for Bullwinkle

DOT doesn’t realize it, but they are already halfway to a solution. One of the pedestrian overpasses could become a wildlife-crossing structure that would accommodate moose. The middle overpass is the best candidate. It’s already in a prime location.

Moose prefer overpasses, especially wide ones, to underpasses. The minimum optimal width seems to be 165 feet -- considerably wider than most pedestrian overpasses. However, narrower overpasses with flared ends have also proven effective. An overpass designed to accommodate moose could also be used by people.

Wildlife overpasses and underpasses work best if animals are funneled into them by barriers such as fences. But there may be a less expensive and more attractive alternative for this road: boulders.

The road will be elevated on a dike to cross the wetlands. Research in other states and Canadian provinces has found that riprapping the roadbed with boulders channels elk towards road crossings.

Moose are just as leery of walking on boulders as elk, if not more so. A direct comparison of fences and boulders found riprap consisting of boulders 18-24 inches in diameter laid in a swath 12-20 feet wide deterred at-grade crossing by elk and could be an attractive alternative to fencing according to one Arizona report.

Don’t just take my advice. The Federal Highway Administration also recommends boulders as an innovative solution. 

In December, the design team indicated some of the project’s amenities were negotiable. The team is still attempting to reconcile what people want versus what the state can afford.

There is a solution that will minimize moose-vehicle collisions if DOT is willing to think outside its box. One of the two goals of the project is improving safety of motorized and non-motorized traffic. Moose are non-motorized traffic.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com

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