PALMER — A new proposal for pedestrian and bicycle access along the congested roads of Mat-Su recommends nearly 100 projects aimed at adding pathways and improving safety — if supporters can come up with ways to pay for changes that aren’t yet funded.
The sweeping Matanuska-Susitna Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, approved unanimously by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly at a meeting Tuesday, singles out 95 new infrastructure projects in communities from Glacier View to Talkeetna, including shoulder widening, 134 miles of new paths and about 10 new crosswalks.
The document marks the borough’s first such nonmotorized plan, ordered as part of a 2017 long-range transportation project. Fairbanks-based consultant firm RESPEC was contracted to produce the plan, which cost $73,000. Work began in May 2022.
Mat-Su is the fastest-growing area of the state with about 113,000 residents, a population expected to reach 130,000 by 2027, according to the borough. The new plan notes that, while the borough hosts 2,000 miles of paths and trails across 25,000 square miles and 25 communities, vehicles are still the primary way residents get around, and bike and pedestrian travel has largely been an afterthought in local transportation planning.
Unlike Anchorage, where 120 miles of paved bike and multiuse trails connect large parts of the municipality, paved paths within the Mat-Su often start and stop seemingly without reason, leaving users to navigate narrow shoulders and dark, busy roads.
For example, a bike path in Palmer runs 4 miles along busy, two-lane Bogard Road between the Glenn Highway and Trunk Road, terminating more than 5 miles before the next pedestrian path in Wasilla at East Seldon and Wasilla-Fishhook roads. And in Wasilla, a bike path along Knik-Goose Bay Road ends near Settlers Bay, rather than running an additional 6 miles past the congested corridor’s housing developments.
While planners said all of the projects are aimed at improving public safety, some of the roads or intersections flagged for updates are more dangerous than others.
For example, the intersection of the Parks Highway and Palmer-Wasilla Highway in Wasilla, where pedestrians must cross seven lanes of traffic in faded crosswalks, is flagged in the report as one of the busiest in the borough, with seven cyclist or pedestrian accidents logged there between 2010 and 2019.
Multiple pedestrian accidents have been logged on Bogard Road, including one involving a Palmer police officer driving a patrol car. And a proposed Meadow Lakes Loop Road path would connect the Parks Highway to the intersection of Pittman Road, an area where there were three serious bike or pedestrian accidents between 2015 and 2019, the report states.
This attempt to carve pedestrian access from busy motorized corridors relied on hundreds of public comments over the research process, with a crosswalk near the Talkeetna library receiving the most support of any specific project. Commenters also highlighted a desire for more motorized pathways, something that will need to be addressed in a separate project, borough officials say.
All told, about 30 projects suggested through public comment, including the Talkeetna library crosswalk, were added to the borough’s original list of recommendations.
“It’s easy for us to look at a map and see a separated pathway ends here and another one is over here, so let’s put one in the middle. But figuring out where people actually bike and actually walk is difficult because the borough doesn’t have any sort of (use) counter,” Kelsey Anderson, a borough planner who has spearheaded the process, told the assembly Tuesday. “So we rely heavily on people telling us where they like to recreate.”
Receiving approval from the assembly is only the first step in getting the plan rolling, Anderson said.
While about 30 of the 95 infrastructure projects on the list are already underway as a part of previously approved plans and some are even in use; the remainder are only in the idea stage and still need funding, planning officials said.
Because the list represents only project priorities, not an actual completion plan, no total cost estimate has been created.
“There are so many different variables when it comes to actually having the funding to go fund these projects,” said Alex Strawn, the borough’s planning and land use director. “The price of oil, or who’s sitting on the assembly … how voters are feeling — if they’re feeling like these are important to them — how much money is in the economy.”
Some of the projects were funded as part of a 2021 transportation bond package, while others are in a ballot measure borough voters will decide in November. If approved, that bond would require a 50% match from the state for projects to move forward. Whether that happens will depend on state budget priorities.
“Bicycle and pedestrian facilities are kind of the only one where the whole ‘build it and they will come’ is actually true,” Anderson said. “I’m really excited about getting more people out and just being able to get around safely and go enjoy family and friends and the places that we love.”