The Seward Highway could become a sunken freeway to ease congestion in Midtown Anchorage.
It’s a long-debated idea state engineers are resurrecting in a search for long-term traffic solutions.
An ongoing study also includes concepts for overpass bridges and frontage roads from 20th Avenue to Tudor Road. Engineers expect traffic to double in the next few decades for the stretch of roadway that currently slopes to the north, cuts between neighborhoods and commercial districts, and draws heavy commuter traffic.
By next fall, state officials hope to line up a list of projects and figure out where the money will come from.
Studies show most traffic on the Seward Highway is headed for Midtown, said Sean Holland, the project manager with the state of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. He said engineers want to separate the local traffic from highway traffic, while making it easier for neighbors to walk and bike to businesses in the commercial area.
City planners hope to see that too. Land-use plans designate this corridor — a patchwork of long blocks, strip mall retail and fast-moving traffic not far from neighborhoods — as a future “city center.” Michelle McNulty, the city planning director, said she sees it as a future gateway to the city.
The planners envision a mix of housing and commercial growth in the area. Some change is happening now. The Midtown Mall, formerly The Mall at Sears, will look very different next year with the arrival of the outdoor retailer REI and a brand-new Carrs grocery store. The mall’s revival could be a catalyst for growth, McNulty said.
McNulty said the area has “all the right ingredients” to become a more walkable, dynamic part of the city.
“That’s why we have to be intentional about how we do road projects in this area,” she said.
A big dream
For decades, engineers have dreamed of building a nonstop highway through Anchorage.
The famous first attempt, known as Highway to Highway, sought to link the Glenn Highway and the Seward Highway. But it was ambitious, contentious and expensive at a time when the state was juggling multiple megaprojects, Holland said.
More recently, engineers tried to zero in on a smaller section of the highway: the often-congested intersection at 36th Avenue. Redesign proposals included overpasses and ramps.
But that project turned out to be too myopic, Holland said. In taking a broader look at the entire stretch through Midtown, Holland’s hoping for a Goldilocks effect.
“It’s a right-sized project,” Holland said.
Engineers first gathered in a room about a year ago and sketched out ideas, Holland said. The state also put together advisory groups of Midtown citizens and businesses.
Since then, two “families” of ideas have emerged, Holland said. The central theme is that the Seward Highway will not be at ground level.
The highway could be either elevated or sunken, Holland said. At meetings, citizens and businesses have expressed more support for a sunken freeway, though Holland says that option would come with a bigger price tag, in part because of groundwater issues.
The concepts diverge over the idea of frontage roads. One set of plans puts one-way frontage roads on either side of the highway. The other would install two-way frontage roads on the west side of the highway, extending the Old Seward Highway.
The five major intersections — Tudor Road, 36th Avenue, Benson Boulevard, Northern Lights and Fireweed Lane — could become overpasses or underpasses.
Other big details vary. In one proposal, Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson Boulevard, both one-way thoroughfares, turn into two-lane roads. One short-term proposal suggests medians with U-turns aimed at helping traffic flow better.
A separate map shows potential bike and pedestrian routes.
Traffic data has shown about 70 percent of Seward Highway traffic is headed for Midtown, Holland said. He said most of that traffic can be directed to the new frontage roads, rather than building a larger highway.
But building out frontage roads and overpasses would involve a bigger footprint. That would involve the state buying up land in the project area.
“There are going to have to be some pretty big property purchases to make,” Holland said.
He said there are still plenty of variables and no width has been decided.
Mixed early reviews
An an August meeting, members of a citizen advisory group asked questions about housing, sound barriers and the possible relocation of businesses.
On an interactive project map, one person commented and said overhauling the highway wouldn’t solve the commercial district’s bigger planning issues. They cited too much surface parking and strip retail, poor walkability and little housing.
Jim Wright, the president of the Rogers Park Community Council, was living in Rogers Park during the Highway to Highway debates and is now a member of the citizen advisory group on the Midtown study. He said he sees a few differences from the original Glenn-Seward connection project. No longer is the state considering re-routing the Seward Highway itself through neighborhoods, Wright said. In the past, those proposals kicked up a storm of opposition.
Wright also said the idea of frontage roads is relatively new. The Seward Highway does have frontage roads south of Tudor, on Brayton Drive and Homer Drive, Holland said.
While Wright’s council hasn’t yet taken a position, Wright said he is personally interested in seeing more about how the project footprint would affect Rogers Park. He also said he isn’t sure the project has to happen right now, given the state’s economic downturn.
Holland, the state project manager, said the study could lead to the conclusion that nothing should be built.
But by next September, engineers expect to break down an entire corridor remodel into six different projects. Those would be ranked by priority, Holland said.
Holland said he would like to get it all built out over 10 years. But that’s an aggressive timeline, hugely dependent on money, he said.
For now, Holland said DOT wants to hear from people about how they want to use the area.
The next public open house is scheduled for February.