The state is looking at building an interchange on the Seward Highway outside Girdwood, with looping extensions over wetlands, for at least $35 million.
Alaska road engineers say the plan, still in its early design phase, will dramatically improve safety at the T-junction where the Seward and Alyeska highways meet.
A fatality hasn’t been recorded there since at least 1980, and the number of crashes isn’t high compared to other similar intersections in Alaska, engineers say. But they say traffic is growing, and the left-hand turns through oncoming traffic are risky and can result in serious accidents.
Christina Huber, project manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, called it a rare chance to improve an intersection before it turns deadly.
“We want to solve it before it becomes a critical problem,” she said.
Under the plan, turnoffs would curl off the main highway stem, allowing motorists to cruise into the resort community of 2,000 without stopping. A roundabout on the small Alyeska Highway would slow traffic into town.
One loop over wetlands will extend off the main Seward Highway more than 300 feet toward the coast, known for the drowned forest of dead trees that came to be when land sank in the 1964 earthquake.
That would eliminate the need for drivers to stop and watch for gaps in traffic before turning left, Huber said. Cars and trucks would travel over a bridge about 18 feet high over the Seward Highway.
Another partial loop, on the Girdwood side and also traveling over wetlands, would provide access to the gas station and mall. That would replace the current driveway linking the Speedway Express mall — sometimes referred to as the Girdwood Station Mall — directly to the Seward Highway, which is a dangerous situation, engineers say.
Mike Edgington, co-chair of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, said he suspects many Girdwood residents have yet to see the plan, and might have concerns with its size.
He said he likes the design, but he’s not a fan of the large loop over the wetlands. That should be eliminated or reduced, he said.
“This plan prioritizes moving traffic more than it emphasizes the scenic aspects of the community,” he said.
He said the proposed access to the Speedway mall, one of the few commercial places to stop between Anchorage and Seward, could bring increased customers, he said.
“It will be less congested, and a bit more orderly in terms of moving the traffic,” he said.
Several people attending a project open house in Girdwood last Wednesday said they liked the plan, though they offered ideas for improvement here and there.
When traffic is busy at the intersection and mall, it can be “nuts, absolutely nuts,” said Eric Steinfort, a Girdwood resident who works for the U.S. Forest Service.
The design will be a big improvement, and he likes that it isolates the mall traffic, which will help reduce the possibility of crashes, he said.
Fritz Krusen, who often drives from Anchorage where he lives to his Girdwood condominium, said he loves the plan.
Turning left into town is scary when cars are streaming past, he said. Some people worry the project will impact the scenery, but safety is paramount, he said.
“I understand the concerns, but I tell you what, I’m not looking at the views when I’m trying to get through all that traffic,” he said. “I’m looking at the cars and I’m worried about that.”
Huber said the state unveiled this latest plan, which it calls its “recommended concept,” in late June. It comes after a dozen versions have been presented in recent years. The work so far has been funded with a $5 million state grant. Planners hope to land federal funding to pay for the vast majority of construction, she said.
Amanda Tuttle, owner of CoasT Pizza at the mall, said she and other business owners expect to lose business because it will take a long time for traffic to reach the retail area.
Safety improvements are definitely needed at the intersection, she said. She’s seen semi trucks crash into ditches, boats slide off trailers, and lots of near-misses. But it’s not fair to the businesses, four of which are locally owned, to be placed at what’s essentially a dead end of the highway, she said.
She said she’d like to see two lanes added to the Seward Highway outside Girdwood, providing space for a turning lane that provides safe, direct access to the Speedway mall.
“I think there can be a way this is done without the clovers,” she said. “It’s going to have to be something that’s different and outside the box.”
Dale Goodwin, president of Girdwood Inc., a prominent Girdwood civic group, said the board likes the latest concept. It’s the best option that’s been presented and is the most “economically realistic,” she said.
“Nothing is perfect, but this design fits all the boxes the best, especially in terms that it could happen,” she said.
John Trautner, a Girdwood resident who once owned the mall, said he opposes the new design. It will hurt business at the mall and could confuse drivers, making it more dangerous, he said.
“It’s a waste of $35 million,” he said. “It will be the biggest damn mess you’ve ever seen.”
Huber, the project’s manager, said she believes the plan will improve access to the mall by making it safer.
She said the plan can change with more public input.
The state plans to take the recommended concept to the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission for a review late this year before a final concept is settled on, according to Huber. An environmental review and then a permitting phase would be next.
“Now is the time to make comments,” she said. “The farther we move along, the harder it is to make changes.”