In a narrow corridor between railroad tracks and a West Anchorage conservation watershed, Anchorage's water and sewer utility has spent the last two months quietly building a new access road -- and a chain-link fence to prevent anyone from using the road to reach the Coastal Trail.
The reason for the dirt-and-gravel road, the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility says, is better access to aging sewer pipes beneath the Fish Creek Estuary.
But AWWU engineers also imagined laying the foundation for a long-term connection between Northern Lights Boulevard and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a concept they say is reflected in city planning documents. People who live nearby have for years walked and skied on what had become a single-track trail through the corridor, though those activities involved trespassing on Alaska Railroad land.
While preparing to build the road as part of a three-phase maintenance project, the utility contacted the city and offered to help pay for part of a permanent trail. The city's trails coordinator even started to draft a design and a grant proposal.
But the idea hit a dead end once it reached the state-owned Alaska Railroad, which cited decades of persistent trespassing onto its right of way in the area. Instead of allowing a public trail, the railroad required the utility to build a fence and new gates to keep people out.
The utility complied, though somewhat reluctantly, to pay about $114,000 to install just under a mile of permanent fencing and new gates -- a development that has sparked a furor among neighbors who used the old trail.
Tim Sullivan, a railroad spokesman, said the railroad is concerned about safety. Though there hasn't been a fatal accident in the corridor, Sullivan described the stretch of tracks as among the most trespassed in the state. He said people are constantly walking across and near the tracks.
"The trespassing in there is just egregious," Sullivan said. "It's really, really bad, and really, really dangerous."
The railroad right of way extends 100 feet on either side of the tracks. Last week, crews were finishing a permanent chain-link fence, 6 feet high and 45 feet from the west side of the tracks. At the south end, the new access road lies between the fence and the railroad tracks and poses a safety hazard, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the railroad plans to pay to fence off the opposite side of the tracks once money is available. He said a cost estimate hasn't been calculated yet.
The new fencing and blocked access has incensed some residents in the surrounding neighborhood. Steve Conway, who lives off Northern Lights Boulevard just south of the new access road, said he's walked or skied the trail daily for 15 years. He said he knows dozens of others also use it regularly.
"I'm sure they have some line about safety … (but) there's so much wildlife that goes through there," Conway said. "Moose, bear, fox, every kind of waterfowl. It's a natural corridor. It's sort of an unmanaged park."
Dave Battle, the Anchorage wildlife biologist, first heard of the fence Wednesday from a reporter. He said he didn't have specific data on moose or other animals in the corridor, but he said he was "sure it will impact any wildlife movements in that area."
Battle also observed that the fence is within the railroad's right of way and said he doesn't believe a permit was required.
Conway said the new access road also appears to allow better skiing and running conditions for the public -- though Sullivan said that's exactly what the railroad doesn't want. AWWU will be responsible for maintaining the road and alerting the railroad when its crews use it, Sullivan said.
AWWU engineers, meanwhile, say they never wanted to build the fence and gates and block people out. But they say the maintenance issues left them with few options.
Sewer pipe maintenance issues
Beneath the quiet pooling water of Fish Creek Estuary, described by conservationists as one of the last of Anchorage's original salmon streams, lies about $15 million worth of decades-old sewer pipes. The wastewater flows through the pipes and in and out of the city utility's Pump Station 2, northwest of Westchester Lagoon.
About one-third of Anchorage's sewage flows in pipes beneath the estuary, said AWWU project manager Mark Corsentino. The pipes were built between 1950 and 1970, he said. He said that when they were first installed, future maintenance and access was not well-thought-out.
In November 2009, a pipe ruptured beneath the estuary. About 270,000 gallons of sewage entered Fish Creek and flowed into Cook Inlet.
The utility redirected the sewage flow to a different pipe in the estuary. For environmental reasons, the utility then waited for frozen conditions to fix the broken pipe, Corsentino said. But when crews finally went out in February 2010, they had a difficult time getting there, Corsentino said.
AWWU rented a mini-excavator, drove under the railroad tunnel on the Coastal Trail and crossed the wooden bridge across Fish Creek -- a maneuver that wouldn't be allowed today, after a Westchester Lagoon bridge collapsed earlier this year when a wood chipper drove across it. Crews built a second, temporary bridge across the estuary to reach the pipe.
"It was a mess," Corsentino said. The utility later put in camera-equipped wheeled robots to monitor the sewer lines. But access was recognized as a problem, Corsentino said.
In 2011 and 2012, while inspecting a 48-inch pipe that runs from Northern Lights Boulevard alongside the railroad tracks, the utility found structural deficiencies in the pipe and some of the nearby manholes.
Hoping to develop a better way to reach the pipes for upgrades, the utility approached the railroad about access to the area, said AWWU capital program manager Stephen Nuss. The railroad agreed to the new road, but on the condition that the utility install a fence to deter trespassers.
There was also a deal involved with a railroad crossing on the northern end of the corridor, by the estuary. AWWU negotiated with the railroad and two landowners whose property lies between the estuary and the railroad tracks to get a permit to cross the tracks, Corsentino said. Previously, the utility had to get permission from the landowners for access.
In exchange, the utility put in two new gates adjacent to the private properties. The landowners had complaints about people camping illegally and burning fires in the woods, according to Corsentino, and the gates were meant to keep out the trespassers.
Conway, the Turnagain resident, said neighbors who use the trail help patrol the corridor. He said he's worried the fence will block off neighbors who have cared for the trail and further seclude people who are illegally camping or engaging in bad behavior. He said he's called police several times over the years.
"We do keep an eye on it," Conway said.
Conway said he understands the railroad is within its rights. But he said he'd like to see a small gate for public access, or efforts to develop a trail. At this point, however, the railroad is flatly rejecting those ideas.
Future of a trail
In February, the Alaska Railroad published a "business facts" pamphlet that spells out its policies on trails.
"In general, a railroad (right-of-way) is not a safe or appropriate location for a trail," the pamphlet reads. "However, ARRC may consider use of (its right-of-way) for trails in rare instances where no feasible alternatives exist."
Allowing public access within what the railroad calls its "safety corridor" creates substantial liability, according to the pamphlet.
The last death on railroad tracks anywhere in Alaska occurred in 2009, when a train hit a 72-year-old woman taking photographs near Potter Marsh, according to Sullivan, the railroad spokesman. In all, 11 people have been struck and killed on the tracks since the state took over the Alaska Railroad in 1985, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said it's up to the city to decide if it wants to develop a trail in ways that don't involve railroad land, like purchasing property or tunneling underneath the railroad embankment. Such options are expensive. In general, Sullivan noted, there's already access to the estuary from the Coastal Trail to the north.
About a year ago, Lori Schanche, the city's nonmotorized transportation coordinator, heard about the AWWU road project. She "tried to weasel" her way in, she said, and sketched out a few renderings of ways to connect Northern Lights Boulevard and the Coastal Trail along the corridor.
Knowing money would be an issue, Schanche started working to put together a grant through the Anchorage Park Foundation. Then Schanche heard about the railroad's opposition. The matter ended there, she said.
Nuss, the AWWU capital program manager, said he understands the railroad's safety concerns. If a derailment ever occurred, he said, even if the access road is 60 feet from the tracks, cars could come tumbling down off the embankment.
But Nuss added that there's a "definite need and want" in the community to access the coast through the estuary. The estuary doesn't have a defined trail through it. Nuss said that at some point, something should be built to allow people to explore the area.
"We recognize that this is a critical area for the residents to move north and south," Nuss said. "I still think the (city) and railroad can eventually reach some sort of agreement ... but there's other, higher priorities to worry about at this time."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing