Project to connect Glenn and Seward highways may come back to life

A government committee on Thursday breathed new life into an ambitious but dormant project to connect the Glenn and Seward highways through Anchorage.

The Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions, or AMATS — the city-state committee that decides how to spend federal money on Anchorage road projects — passed a resolution Thursday that calls on the state to re-start planning for the so-called "highway-to-highway" project, which has been stalled since 2010.

The AMATS resolution came from downtown Anchorage Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who says he's frustrated by the uncertainty surrounding the project.

"Everyone sort of recognizes that you have a number of construction or road projects surrounding the downtown core, and no real plan for how to integrate them," Flynn said. "This is to say, you've waited long enough, let's get after it."

Flynn's resolution directs federal money to be spent on a study that would examine a Glenn-Seward connection and its relationship to other road projects that would affect the downtown area, including a hypothetical Knik Arm bridge.

A study of this type is unusual in Alaska. It's not clear how soon it will happen — no federal money has yet been assigned to it and the cost will likely run between $4 million or $5 million, said David Post, a planning manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation. That cost will come at the expense of other statewide projects.

But Post and other DOT officials said creating the highway connection takes on more urgency as the state's population grows.

"We're happy to see there's quite a bit of interest in this connector to a northern and southern part of the region," said DOT central region director Dave Kemp, who took office in February. "Right now it's a bottleneck. It also divides the community."

The so-called "H2H" project has been debated and discussed for years. As well as cutting down on the number of stoplights through Anchorage, it would take tens of thousands of vehicles off city streets and reshape neighborhoods in and around downtown.

The project was halted in 2010 by Gov. Sean Parnell amid controversy and costs. At the time, there were seven possible routes, including one that sunk a freeway through Fairview's Gambell and Ingra streets.  

Ever since, there's been mounting frustration, particularly among Fairview community leaders. They say the lack of a clear plan has stifled development and hampered efforts to improve pedestrian safety in the Gambell-Ingra corridor.

"There's a black cloud over the whole area," said Paul Fuhs, who manages projects for the Fairview Business Association and has been vocal on the issue for years.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz on Thursday called the AMATS resolution a "road map" to making the Gambell-Ingra corridor safer and more attractive for investment. Flynn's resolution also notes other projects that are underway in the area and would affect the corridor, such as the redesign of 36th Avenue and the Seward Highway. 

The study in Flynn's resolution would analyze traffic and development issues for downtown and incorporate all the different road projects in the area, said Craig Lyon, AMATS coordinator. 

Kemp on Thursday acknowledged that the stalled planning for a Glenn-Seward connection has had consequences, particularly for Fairview.

"Obviously people are hesitant to make a long-term investment in an area where they're not sure what the alignment will be, what property takes are going to be," Kemp said. "We are definitely cognizant of those uncertainties, and how it can lead to a lack of development."

With the study, officials say they hope to help accelerate decision-making and give neighborhoods and developers a better idea of what could happen in the future. It isn't known if or when a Glenn-Seward connection will ultimately be built. Cost estimates have run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the state is confronted with a bleak fiscal picture.  

In a statement through a spokeswoman on Thursday, Gov. Bill Walker wasn't optimistic.

"Until we have a fully sustainable fiscal plan in place, it will be difficult to restart a project of this size," Walker's statement said.