Anchorage residents and politicians are pushing back on a property owner’s bid to lease a chunk of land near Fish Creek from the Alaska Railroad, a move that would likely block a long-awaited bike trail extension project.
The Alaska Railroad Corp. board of directors is set to make a decision on the lease in the coming weeks. At a Sept. 6 meeting of the board’s real estate committee, more than a dozen Anchorage residents, including two local politicians, urged the railroad board to deny the proposed 95-year lease of about 1 acre of land to J.L. McCarrey III, Barbara McCarrey, Kristin McCarrey and Eric Finseth. As of that morning, 73 others had testified against the lease in written comments to the board, said the Alaska Railroad Corp.’s Vice President of Real Estate, Christy Terry.
The project, funded in a 91% to 9% split of federal and local dollars, would connect the Spenard-area Fish Creek Trail to the Tony Knowles Costal Trail.
So far in the project’s development, planners have found the “least impactful” — and what they say is likely the only viable — trail route is through the chunk of railroad land adjacent to McCarrey’s property.
If the board grants the proposed lease, it is “highly likely that the Fish Creek Trail Connection project will be unable to proceed,” Aaron Jongenelen, AMATS transportation planning manager, said on behalf of the AMATS Policy Committee in an Aug. 25 letter to the railroad’s board. AMATS is the Anchorage-area planning organization of the municipality and state.
Board member John Binkley on Wednesday asked J.L. McCarrey whether the purpose of the lease would be to stop construction of a section of the proposed trail.
“The purpose is to maintain the privacy that we have had and hope to continue to have” for years, he replied.
The many Anchorage residents, politicians and local organizations advocating for the trail connection project say that numerous public benefits of the widely-supported project far outweigh the desire of a private property owner. That group also includes many who live in the area of the trail project.
Still, other property owners and residents in the area of the proposed trail have voiced concerns about potential impacts to their residences and to the Fish Creek Estuary that could be caused by a big increase in bike and pedestrian travel.
“As a private property owner, I object to the railroad increasing the burden of the railroad easement on my property,” said resident John Fletcher, testifying in support of McCarrey’s lease application.
During the committee meeting, state Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, said the area is home to many working-class residents and kids who use bicycles to get around, and there is no current safe route to get to the Coastal Trail from Northern Lights Boulevard.
“If you’re a kid, if you’re a person who doesn’t have a car, if you’re a person in a wheelchair, this is an absolutely essential transportation connection. And it would be outrageous if the railroad acted as an agent of one family’s desire to block transportation access for the thousands of people in Anchorage who rely on a functioning transportation system,” he said.
Fields and three other Anchorage state legislators — independent Rep. Alyse Galvin and Democratic Senators Elvi Gray-Jackson and Löki Gale-Tobin — in a letter to the board opposed the lease, saying that the trail connection is critical, and would provide safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists and people with disabilities.
Anchorage communities have pushed for the trail connection project for years. Variation of such a trail have been in transportation planning documents since the late ‘90s. In 2021, 2022 and 2023 voters approved parks bonds that included money for the project.
Anchorage Assembly member Daniel Volland told the railroad board that the Assembly at its Sept. 12 meeting will vote on a resolution calling on the board to deny McCarrey’s lease application.
The city’s parks and trails are a draw for residents and visitors, Volland said.
“Imagine all the families in Spenard being able to access the Coastal Trail, or visitors who go to the hotels in Spenard being able to ride up the Fish Creek trail and go to the Coastal Trail. I think it is enormously in the public interest to move forward with this project,” he said.
A handful of people spoke in support of McCarrey’s lease application. They said the project could choose one of several other possible routes included in initial designs.
But two of those routes would cut through the Fish Creek Estuary, which is protected in a conservation easement. That means a trail built in the estuary would be limited in scope and can’t be paved — and so won’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, a big complication for the project, said Jongenelen, the AMATS transportation planning manager.
“It’s difficult — impossible — for us to do because of the ADA requirements we have to meet for federal regulations,” he said.
The situation was initially reported last month by the Alaska Landmine.
Anchorage residents have made it clear they do not want the trail to affect the estuary, said Taylor Keegan, project manager in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Another route would avoid a switchback through the railroad parcel adjacent to the McCarrey property, jutting farther north and requiring a bridge over the Coastal Trail. But that route would still run north adjacent to the railroad tracks and McCarrey’s property, and it would still cross McCarrey’s driveway, which begins at the end of Forest Park Drive and cuts across the railroad tracks.
That version of the trail would cost about an additional $9 million over the project’s allotted funding, Jongenelen said.
Still, it will likely be at least a year until the design study report is finished and a route is finalized, Keegan said. Project managers expect to publicly release environmental impact documents this fall for the various routes, she said. That includes cultural surveys, wetlands delineations and “exploring if our least impactful route is, in fact, the least impactful,” she said.
Construction is estimated to begin in 2025, according to the most recent project update from AMATS.
It’s unclear exactly when the Alaska Railroad’s board of directors will make a decision on the McCarrey’s lease application — or what they’ll choose.
After calling an executive session to discuss potential legal issues, the committee tabled the matter, without discussing its merits on Wednesday.
Public comment is slated to close on Sept. 21, and the board initially expected to decide one day later, during its Sept. 22 meeting in Fairbanks. However, board Chair John Shively said the board needs more time to read public comments and said that it may be better to wait until a following meeting held in Anchorage. The next meeting in Anchorage is scheduled for Nov. 14.