Advocates for Anchorage's bike trail system envision extensive new links

Anchorage engineers are holding an open house Thursday evening to gather ideas on the best way to connect the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to the northern Ship Creek Trail, a missing link in the city trail system that has been identified as a community priority but also poses thorny engineering and financial challenges.

Bridges, tunnels or even an entirely new trail stretching into the outer tidal zone of Cook Inlet could be involved in making the connection, officials say.

"We're at the stage where you just have wild ideas," said city project manager Russ Oswald. "I fully expect people to bring up the idea, 'Why can't you just bridge over the whole thing?' "

The open house will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Alaska Railroad depot at 411 W. First Ave. in Anchorage.

The event marks the first time the project to link the two trails has been put before the public. In 2014, the administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan put $400,000 toward conceptual design work, said Isobel Roy, project administrator for the city's Project Management and Engineering department. With such varied ideas, officials haven't come up with an estimate of a total project cost.

In the past year, a committee of mostly city and state officials has met to discuss various options, Oswald said.

The open house is happening at the same time as major maintenance work has begun on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. On Monday, city crews began to replace two wooden bridges along the trail, upgrades triggered by the sudden collapse of the bridge at the north end of Westchester Lagoon in 2014.

[Detours set for Anchorage's Coastal Trail as bridge work begins]

But the trail connection project for the Coastal and Ship Creek trails points to a bigger vision, said Maeve Nevins, a city park planner.

Numerous city plans documents have described connecting the Coastal and Ship Creek trails. But it's not going to be simple, cheap or particularly fast.  

One of the major challenges is property ownership, Oswald said. The state-owned Alaska Railroad owns much of the land in that corridor.

"It's not easy task to intermix bicyclists and railroads," Oswald said.

At Thursday's open house, maps will be displayed that show some of the existing ideas for tackling the trail connection.

One involves a bridge over railroad tracks that connects to F Street. Another possible route could extend out into what is currently the mudflats of Cook Inlet before looping through a port dock.

A tunnel under the train depot and a route that would extend across railroad tracks and under the A and C streets merger are among the other ideas.  

None of those ideas are set in stone, and people are encouraged to make other suggestions, said Oswald, the city's project manager.

Oswald said he also expects talk at the meeting of a trail that goes through downtown Anchorage. But other trail connections — like extending the trail to Government Hill and through Mountain View — aren't the main focus of this meeting, he said.

He said the main focus for now is connecting the Ship Creek Trail and the Coastal Trail.

"There's no preconceived notion for how to make this connection," Oswald said. "We don't have all the answers, so we need help from the public to get their ideas too."

After the meeting, the project team will get together and discuss the feedback, Oswald said. The city has hired two Anchorage consultants for the project, CRW Engineering Group and Solstice Alaska Consulting.

A preliminary design report for a trail connection is expected to be released this winter.