Major Anchorage projects would change how the Seward and Glenn highways connect. But a smaller idea has traction.

The goal is to improve safety and reunite the Fairview neighborhood near downtown that’s divided by the current connection.

Alaska transportation planners have released draft proposals to join the Seward and Glenn highways with a smooth-flowing connection, a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if it can be built.

The plans would change the current connection that divides the Fairview neighborhood near downtown Anchorage, along Gambell and Ingra streets and Fifth and Sixth avenues.

Despite stoplights and 35 mph limits in Fairview, the streets are known for speeding and too many pedestrian crashes, residents say. The situation has contributed to neglect and disinvestment in the neighborhood, they say.

The idea of building a new highway link has been tossed about for decades, but the high costs of construction and other public concerns have stood in the way.

The state released the plans in a 166-page report last month.

Some of the proposed routes would largely avoid Fairview, running south of Merrill Field. One includes a half-mile-long bridge, or viaduct, over the Chester Creek greenbelt.

Other proposals would maintain a connection through Fairview. It’d be built below ground level, in a trench, not a tunnel.

Some critics of the proposals say they like a smaller idea. The state calls it an “interim” phase that will be analyzed.

That idea would downsize Gambell and Ingra to three one-way lanes each, from four, the same number of lanes for the highway connection at Fifth and Sixth avenues. That could improve pedestrian features and better manage traffic and control speeds, supporters say.

Allen Kemplen, at-large member of the Fairview Community Council’s executive board and former council president, said the state’s proposed projects are too large and could force large numbers of homes and businesses to relocate.

“We promote ourselves as a wonderful place for tourists with Chugach views and airplane trips to glaciers,” said Kemplen, a retired state transportation planner. “Do we really want to promote this gash through the urban fabric, with all that concrete, so people from the Valley can get down to fishing faster?”

‘Unique opportunity’

The Fairview council helped secure funding for the current planning effort, to reunite the neighborhood and improve safety, said Galen Jones, the project manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Fairview was once the heart of Anchorage’s Black community and a thriving area until road planners ran the highways through in the 1960s, current and former residents say.

The project presents a unique opportunity to make positive changes in Anchorage and correct problems caused by the current transportation system, Jones said.

“If we do this right, it’ll open up the opportunity for land-use changes for the better, for reinvestment in communities, and it will dramatically increase safety by separating regional and local traffic,” he said.

The project is in an early phase. Costs and funding sources haven’t been determined. But federal funding is expected to pay for it, Jones said. It will take several years to design and build, if not decades, and will likely be constructed in phases.

Public input runs through April 7, with comment details on the project website.

“This is the first step in getting feedback on the alternatives, so we can refine them and narrow them down,” he said. “People feel like they have to choose an alternative now, but that’s not the case.”

Four main projects, with variations

The proposals are:

Alternative A connects the highways on little-used Hyder and parallels Third Avenue to the north.

Alternative B runs on Ingra and Fifth. Two sub-alternatives follow that route, with features to reduce right-of-way impacts.

Alternative C runs south of Merrill Field, traveling along 15th Avenue or beside it, depending on two variations.

Alternative D runs south of Merrill Field, with the viaduct over a portion of the Chester Creek greenbelt.

Each plan adds amenities for walkers, cyclists and other non-motorized users, including overpasses when the highway is trenched. Gambell would be restored to the Main Street feel it once had. Sidewalks would be widened. Traffic-slowing features such as landscaping buffers or on-street parking could be added.

Each proposal includes a 1.5-mile-long greenway connecting the Chester Creek and Ship Creek greenbelts in downtown. The Fairview neighborhood proposed the greenway to create a trail loop around Anchorage’s core. The neighborhood also supports the Gambell upgrades.

Roads for port traffic would be altered, helping remove massive trucks from local roads.

Then there’s the “interim” option to shrink Gambell and Ingra by a lane.

State planners will study that as a temporary phase, Jones said. It could be in place several years before a final project can be built.

Reducing Gambell and Ingra could provide space to create a safety buffer between pedestrians and traffic, and to store snow, state materials show. The state will run traffic modeling to see how well the idea would work, and for how long, Jones said.

The section of Gambell around the Carrs grocery store off 13th Avenue has been found to have the highest pedestrian crash rates in the transportation region that includes Anchorage and Wasilla. The area also has high vehicle crash rates.

In March 2022, four crashes in the area led to the deaths of two pedestrians while two others were seriously injured.

“The point would be to save lives as soon as we can,” Jones said of the “interim” idea.

Impacts on private property

Most of the proposed highway connections could have “significant impacts” on private property, according to a preliminary analysis by the municipality’s Planning Department.

Six of the seven options and their variations could affect between 133 and 568 housing units, depending on the proposal, because of the project’s potential right-of-way needs, the review found.

The route over the Chester Creek greenbelt could affect five housing units.

The “rough” analysis looked at property that appears to be fully or partially impacted by the proposed routes, based on available project materials, said Daniel McKenna-Foster, a senior municipal planner, in an email.

The state is not challenging the analysis and will do its own review, Jones said.

Daniel Volland, who represents North Anchorage, which includes Fairview, for the Anchorage Assembly, supports the interim plan and isn’t a huge fan of the large projects, he said. An Assembly resolution in 2022 called the placement of the current highway connection in Fairview “a clear act of discrimination.”

Some of the new proposals could force the relocation of the first Black church in Alaska, Volland said. Greater Friendship Baptist Church, founded in 1951 and located at Ingra and 13th, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Do we want to sacrifice our greenbelts and beloved, historic institutions like Greater Friendship Baptist Church? Do we want to sacrifice homes in a neighborhood?” Volland said. “Or, are we willing to sacrifice five minutes of our commute to slow traffic down through a neighborhood and have wider sidewalks and create a better quality of life for the people that live there?”

The Rev. Michael Bunton, the church pastor, said he’s concerned a new highway connection will require relocation, making it hard for the church to survive.

“I understand we need to do something to be more viable for volumes of traffic, but we are uneasy with those proposals because we know it will affect our church community,” he said.

If the smaller interim project advances, construction should happen quickly to protect church attendance, he said.

Kelly Ittenbach, the Fairview council secretary, said she supports the alternative over the Chester Creek greenbelt. It has less impact on private property, and she said a bridge can be attractively designed with nice lighting.

The interim approach is a positive step but not enough, she said.

“You’ll still have really fast traffic flow and it doesn’t reconnect the Fairview community,” she said.

Bob Charles, tribal transportation program manager for the Knik Tribe based in Palmer, said the tribe proposed and supports the alternative over Chester Creek greenbelt because it doesn’t need much private property acquisition.

He said the route will improve downtown access and travel in the region, such as between the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and the Kenai Peninsula.

“It provides the best alternative,” he said.

Lindsey Hajduk of NeighborWorks Alaska, which provides affordable housing and support for neighborhoods, said she’s concerned about the loss of housing and businesses. A large highway connection could also disconnect new parts of the city.

NeighborWorks Alaska is reviewing the alternatives and plans to offer suggestions for improvements, she said. The group helped Fairview win a $540,000 “Reconnecting Communities” federal grant last year that’s been matched by the municipality. The money supports Fairview’s effort to create a new vision for the Gambell-Ingra corridor.

Hajduk supports the interim plan as a near-term solution, she said. “It could be something that we do immediately that improves the neighborhood,” she said. “And maybe there are other solutions that can be considered that don’t involve a megaproject.”

A ‘more vibrant’ community

Kemplen, with the Fairview council’s executive board, said he believes the highway connections will divide Anchorage, damaging it economically like the current one did in Fairview.

He said he supports the interim option. The Fairview community council is expected to vote on the issue in April.

Kemplen recently led transportation planners on a short walking tour of Gambell and Ingra, to illustrate the need for pedestrian improvements.

Frozen, bumpy sidewalks and snow berms forced people in the group to walk cautiously, sometimes just feet from vehicles. They sidestepped power poles installed mid-sidewalk. They negotiated icy commercial drives sloping into traffic. They walked down side streets near snow-buried sidewalks.

Kemplen said many people in Fairview can’t afford cars, so they often walk. One slip and a person could be severely injured or die, he said.

“This part of town has one of the lowest auto ownership rates in the municipality and then you take away their (walking) infrastructure for half of the year,” Kemplen said. “It makes no sense.”

During the tour, a state transportation official with a radar gun clocked vehicles exceeding the 35 mph limit on Gambell and Ingra.

“Fifty-two,” she shouted as one truck passed.

Kemplen said shrinking Gambell and Ingra to three lanes like Fifth and Sixth avenues could support an array of improvements to better manage traffic and snow, and improve pedestrian safety.

A greenway connecting the creeks would bring Anchorage residents together, he said. The changes could support small business activity.

“It will become a place where we build a stronger, more vibrant sense of community and restore what was Fairview,” he told the group.

‘Significant concerns’

The last effort to connect the highways ended in 2010, when the state canceled the Highway to Highway project, or H2H. That project had multiple routes and a $700 million price tag.

The Fairview council jump-started the latest effort a few years ago, Jones said. It helped convince the metropolitan planning organization for the city, Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions, to commit $5 million to launch the planning process.

Assembly Chair Chris Constant, a former member of the metropolitan planning group’s policy committee, helped secure the funding.

State road planners in the 1960s “created an island of deterioration, decay and poverty” in what should be one of Anchorage’s most vibrant and valuable areas, he said.

Constant doesn’t have a position on the alternatives yet, he said. The Assembly will be briefed on them in an April 29 work session.

Staff with the metropolitan planning group have “significant concerns” with the draft alternatives, according to the group’s comments on the proposal. They do not “address the concerns raised by the community” and “appear to make the local connectivity worse.”

Jones said the comments are welcome. The state will provide detailed responses as the planning process continues and can make changes as needed.

He said finding the right route will require trade-offs, such as private property losses versus park land.

“There’s no perfect alternative,” he said. “They all balance different types of impacts.”

[Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Allen Kemplen is no longer president of the Fairview Community Council. He is now a member-at-large of the council’s executive board.]

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or