Alaska transportation planners and an Anchorage neighborhood group have launched separate initiatives that could one day change how the Seward and Glenn highways connect.
The idea for a new freeway connection has been tossed about for decades in Anchorage, but the high costs of construction and public concerns have stood in the way.
The existing highways currently funnel tens of thousands of vehicles each day onto streets near downtown Anchorage. Stoplights can cause bottlenecks. Poorly protected sidewalks can put walkers and cyclists at risk. The area, including a mile-long stretch of Gambell and Ingra streets in Fairview, is known for high rates of pedestrian crashes. Sullivan Arena in recent years has housed hundreds of homeless residents in the area. Drivers today see car lots and the original Carrs grocery store, still standing at Gambell and 13th Avenue.
To help address the area’s issues, the Fairview Community Council and a nonprofit called NeighborWorks Alaska have won a $540,000 grant to pursue ways to improve or change the connection, and reunite the Fairview neighborhood. The grant was awarded under a new U.S. Department of Transportation program that seeks to reconnect communities cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure.
Council president Allen Kemplen says Fairview, a low-income, minority neighborhood, was unfairly targeted in the 1960s when Gambell and Ingra were each expanded into four one-way lanes, creating an eight-lane “couplet” for traffic headed north and south.
Kemplen said Fairview has a “strong sense of community,” but the decision hurt a once-thriving area that was home to much of the city’s Black community, and contributed to a long period of neglect and disinvestment.
“It’s like someone took a knife and cut a big gash through the neighborhood,” said Kemplen, a retired state transportation planner. “Now we have an opportunity to fix that.”
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State wants to reduce neighborhood impacts
State transportation planners, working under a different initiative, are taking public input on potentially creating a new highway connection, an idea the state pursued more than a decade ago.
The project then was called Highway to Highway, or H2H, and multiple routes were on the table. The state canceled the project in 2010, amid neighborhood and business concerns, and a $700 million price.
For this new effort, the state currently has no specific route in mind, said Galen Jones, the project manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
It’s taking ideas from the public, he said. That will lead to draft proposals, and more input. The next public meeting for the Seward-Glenn Mobility project is planned for mid-May. “At this point, we’re in the information-gathering phase, and all options are on the table,” Jones said.
Proposals could call for relatively minor ideas such as altering the current highway connection, which might cost tens of millions of dollars, or major changes that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, such as a smooth highway connection bypassing the neighborhood, or a recessed connection with bridge crossings for pedestrians and vehicles, he said.
State road planners and the Fairview council are coordinating plans to maximize their efforts, he said. The state and the council agree on the need to promote social equity for Fairview, and removing safety concerns associated with the heavy regional traffic that includes trucks headed for the Port of Alaska, Jones said.
“Having a couplet running through that neighborhood is an issue for the neighborhood, understandably, and we want to come up with solutions to fix that,” Jones said.
‘Big, bold’ idea
Lindsey Hajduk with NeighborWorks Alaska, which provides affordable housing and support for neighborhoods, said the grant program was made available under the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed in 2021.
She said perhaps there will be federal money for a big project such as an underground highway connection.
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“We hope a big, bold engineering idea or a phased approach could work,” Hajduk said.
Kemplen said the Fairview council and NeighborWorks plan to hold a series of workshops on potential improvements to the Gambell-Ingra corridor. Among other steps, they also plan to bring urban design experts to Anchorage to offer solutions.
Kemplen, after a mid-April snowfall, trekked down unplowed sidewalks along the corridor with a reporter and photographer, pointing out dangers for pedestrians. Cars and trucks passed a handful of feet away, at times spitting slush onto the group.
There’s no sidewalk buffer or shoulder between vehicles, so street plows can bury the sidewalk in snow. Current municipal standards call for a 7-foot buffer, the state says. Power poles occupy the sidewalks on Gambell, further reducing space for walkers, though the state plans to remove those next year by running power underground.
Kemplen said the pedestrian risks on the corridor were highlighted over three weeks in Fairview last year. In four separate crashes in March, two pedestrians were killed and two were seriously injured. Three collisions occurred along the Gambell-Ingra corridor. Another occurred nearby Fifth and Sixth avenues.
The state in 2018 found that Gambell Street between Ninth and 15th avenues has the highest pedestrian crash rate in the state’s central transportation region, which includes Anchorage and Wasilla. Ingra Street has the region’s highest rate of all vehicle crashes per mile, Jones said.
Kemplen said, “there’s a significant number of low-income people in Fairview, and we have some of the lowest auto-ownership rates. So people are forced to rely on their feet, but our pedestrian infrastructure disappears because it’s used for snow storage,” he said of the sidewalk.
One of the council’s workshops will look at reducing Gambell and Ingra to three lanes each, from four. That could allow sidewalks to be expanded to a safe width, with room for shoulders and bike lanes.
Among other ideas, another workshop will look at a greenway for bikers and walkers, stretching between Gambell and Ingra. It could run along Hyder Street, an area of small homes, businesses and multi-family housing between the two roads. It would connect the city greenbelt at Ship Creek to the north and Chester Creek to the south.
“I challenge you to find another metropolitan area with such an amenity around its urban core,” Kemplen said, referring to a greenbelt loop in the heart of Anchorage. “Instead of this area being a place no one cares about, we can transform it into an asset.”
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‘An instant barrier’
The Anchorage Assembly last fall passed a resolution calling the placement of the highway connection in Fairview more than half a century ago “a clear act of discrimination.”
Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, a former Fairview council president, said the grant is a step toward correcting a longstanding wrong.
“The neighborhood has been in a death spiral since that highway was put there,” he said. “So this is an effort to undo those harms.”
People who lived in Fairview through the Gambell-Ingra expansion say it led to a long decline for the neighborhood. Before the couplet, Gambell was a walkable main street near grocery stores and other businesses, while Ingra was a residential street, they say.
Richard Watts Jr., who started his retail career working at the Carrs grocery store on Gambell in the 1960s, said the area was the center of the Black community in Anchorage. Watts said he was the first Black person to work in retail in Anchorage. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had picketed the Carrs for not hiring Black people at the time.
Watts said the Gambell-Ingra couplet “became an instant barrier” for pedestrians. “It changed the dynamics of the whole business district because cars were going too fast to stop,” he said.
The city loosened zoning rules in the neighborhood, too, bringing apartments and renters to the area. “It became fourplexes and apartments with no ownership by individuals, so there wasn’t anywhere where people could build a home,” he said. “From that aspect, it seemed like the neighborhood itself was running down.”
Fairview, with its minority, low-income population, had less ability to fight the highway connection than other Anchorage communities would have, he said.
“I don’t think anywhere in Anchorage they would have allowed that to happen except in Fairview,” Watts said.
Cal Williams, 81, a longtime Black leader in the community, said he lived in Fairview as a young man when the couplet was built. He said Fairview’s sense of community eroded after the couplet sliced the neighborhood into sections.
He said the best solution would build the highway underground, though it’d be costly.
“If I had unlimited money, that is what I would do,” he said. “Have it flowing underground and above ground that would be green. That would be ideal.”