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U-Med road project moves ahead despite opposition

Tegan Hanlon

A controversial plan to punch a north-south road through the University-Medical District is likely to become a reality after a final attempt to stall the project failed at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday.

The U-Med District Northern Access project, previously known as the "Bragaw Extension," is meant to connect Elmore Road and south Bragaw Street. It has faced decades of opposition from East Anchorage neighbors and some politicians, but was funded by the legislature earlier this year at the request of Mayor Dan Sullivan.

On Tuesday night, the Assembly voted down a move by member Patrick Flynn to reconsider accepting about $70 million for various community projects, including $20 million for the road. At the same time, across town, more 100 people gathered at East Anchorage High School to voice their opposition, citing concerns about trails, safety and wildlife in Chester Creek Greenbelt.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski was one of the legislators who organized the town hall meeting at East. He urged the audience to "keep fighting," but acknowledged after the meeting that stopping the project was, "going to be tough, to be frank."

Eric Miyashiro, who is managing the project for the state Department of Transportation, said in an interview that a route for the new road will be selected by January, unless problems arise.

After the route selection, there will be a public comment period, followed by acquiring land and removing utilities from the area. Miyashiro said he expects to break ground in 2015.

"There are people who like the project and are looking forward to having better access and others who don't think that the area should be disrupted," he said.

But, he said, the option to not build a road is not being considered.

FOUR PROPOSALS

There are four proposed routes for a road that would cut through Alaska Pacific University and University of Alaska Anchorage propertybetween 36th Avenue and Northern Lights Boulevard, all about a mile or less in length. The area includes Goose Lake Park, wetlands as well as popular trails. The two proposed western routes would be two-lane roads and the two more eastern routes would most likely have four lanes, Miyashiro said. A majority of the routes extend south Bragaw Street south and one route connects Elmore Road to E. Northern Lights Boulevard.

Critics at the Tuesday meeting said that any new road would bring more congestion to the already congested U-Med District, create new safety issues and interrupt the green space.

"The large undeveloped tract makes both campuses, as well as the adjacent hospitals, feel like they are in a relatively quiet Alaskan setting, rather than the middle of a big city," said Dick Mylius who has lived in nearby Airport Heights for more than 30 years.

But Bill Spindle, vice president for administrative services at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the U-Med District "has just gotten too crowded." The road would help relieve it, he said.

"We don't see it as a cut-through, although some people will do that," he said. "We see it more as one that will be done in a responsible way with overpasses and underpasses that allow for the flow of people and animals."

LONG-TIME CONFLICT

Conflict surrounding a connection between Northern Lights Boulevard to the north and Tudor Road to the south isn't new. Former Mayor Tom Fink began the conversation with a proposal connector in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Some neighbors have been fighting the project since then.

Gretchen Nelson, a 21-year Airport Heights resident, said that she's lost track of the number of meetings she's attended about the road project. Nelson submitted public testimony this week along with about 40 others at the East High meeting.

"We're talking and we're talking and we're worn down," she said, encouraging the audience to not give up, send letters and organize.

This time around, the project has picked up speed with interest from the state Department of Transportation and allocated state funding.

Last year, the mayor included a request for the funding of the road into the city's annual priority capital budget requests. This list of projects is sent to Juneau after voted on as a total package by the Assembly.

Lawmakers approved the $20 million funding request for the road project.

In September, some assembly members proposed separating the $20 million for the road from the total $70 million state funding package, so that there could be more discussion about the U-Med District Northern Access project. That proposal failed.

"It's sad to say, but it appears we're getting rushed through the process to get the funding to get the road going," said Assemblyman Paul Honeman who represents East Anchorage.

ASSEMBLY REASONING

The Rogers Park Community Council has passed resolutions multiple times, including one in January, opposing the road. Janet Bidwell, the community council president, said the road is on the agenda every month, some people are worried about the design and some don't want a road at all.

"We feel like we talk about it and we pass resolutions and as a community council we're not being heard," Bidwell said. "But the owners of the property feel like it's their property and they can do what they want."

The public conflict over the road is echoed at the Assembly level.

At a September meeting involving the road funding, member Elvi Gray-Jackson, who represents Midtown, said the community is "loud and clear" about not wanting a road. Bill Starr, whose district covers Eagle River and Chugiak, said his constituents from the northern quadrant of the city "need to get to town."

Adam Trombley, who represents East Anchorage, said Wednesday that he voted against reconsidering the funding because the appropriation has gone through the entire political process and has "already been approved by so many people."

"It wouldn't be prudent to stop it now," he said.

Ernie Hall, who represents West Anchorage, said the road will help ease access to the hospital and accommodate for the traffic that will come with UAA's new on-campus sports arena, set to open in August.

"The more that we get ability to go from north to south in Anchorage is a real advantage all the way around," he said.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.

 


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com