Alaska News

A busy stretch of the Seward Highway might be getting much more pedestrian-friendly

Bicyclists and pedestrians will soon have a bit of breathing room on a heavily trafficked section of the Seward Highway that's home to seasonal hooligan fishing, an Alaska Railroad stop and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

The Chugach National Forest has secured a grant to create a pedestrian and bike pathway alongside the 7-mile stretch of the Seward Highway, from Mile 75 to 82, where the road curves along the tip of Turnagain Arm.

The agency hopes this pathway, built in conjunction with other planned safety improvements along the highway, will make the area safer and possibly provide an increase in local economic development.

Currently, pedestrians must walk alongside the highway that is home to multiple outdoor activities, including some popular with families.

During early summer's peak hooligan runs, cars line the highway as hundreds of people pull dipnets full of the oily fish from the Twentymile River and inlet.

A few miles farther south and one passes the turnoff to Portage Glacier and the Alaska Railroad's Portage Valley Depot, where tourists can hop off the train. Then there's the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a popular attraction for visitors, and a section of the walkable Iditarod National Historic Trail, which stretches 1,500 miles across Alaska.

All these, plus the Chugach National Forest's Begich, Boggs Visitor Center and campgrounds in Portage Valley will be linked by the proposed path, wrote Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Alicia King.

That will boost safety along the highway corridor, and maybe make some money, according to Chugach officials.

"Trail-related recreation and tourism can be a viable strategy for increasing economic growth in a local community," forest engineer Griff Berg writes in the grant application to the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Alaska receives about $500 million in federal highway transportation funding every year, allocated into different aspects and projects, said Jeremy Woodrow, spokesperson for Alaska DOT. This particular grant is called the Alaska Transportation Alternatives Program.

The pathway is one of 15 to receive a grant from the state DOT, and received by far the most money — nearly half of the $15.7 million awarded.

The multiuse pathway ranked high on DOT's list, Woodrow said. "Whenever you add in a large population, a need for safety always scores pretty high."

The timeline is multiyear and the project is not yet "shovel-ready," Woodrow said, the department's term for a project that is ready for the construction phase.

Around $7 million of the federal funding has been put aside for the pathway, and the Chugach National Forest must secure a local match of $1.7 million from other agencies, the details of which are still being figured out, King wrote.

The pathway is being created in conjunction with a state project to expand the highway from Mile 75-90.

In that separate project, seven bridges will be replaced, and one will be "rehabilitated," Woodrow said, widening the bridges to allow for the pathway. The road will be resurfaced, new passing lanes will be added, some of the curves realigned, and new parking areas will be built to accommodate recreational pursuits, in particular the hooligan fishing, he said.

The renovations include the stretch of road in front of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where a man was killed last year in a multiple-vehicle collision.

$180 million in federal dollars will be used to fund the project, Woodrow said. It will take place over several years, with construction starting in the summer of 2018 at the earliest.

The project is just one of several planned on the Seward Highway in the years ahead.

"We're seeing more traffic than these roads were originally designed for," Woodrow said, and improvements will help to meet current capacity.