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Anchorage mayor cancels U-Med road project

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 4, 2015

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told state officials on Friday he plans to halt the contentious project to extend Elmore Road through Anchorage's University-Medical District.

In a letter to state transportation commissioner Marc Luiken, Berkowitz said there was too much uncertainty surrounding the project for him to support it.

"Not only is the Northern Access Project opposed by the majority of the neighboring community councils, there is no agreement between the Municipality, the State and other interested parties who will bear responsibility for any cost overruns," Berkowitz wrote.

Many design elements originally required by the city were no longer guaranteed because of funding constraints, Berkowitz added.

Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said in an interview Friday evening the state agency was building the road on the city's behalf.

"If the city withdraws support of its own project, then it won't move forward," McCarthy said.

The idea of the project was first broached in the late 1980s by then-Mayor Tom Fink. It gained steam in 2012 when former Mayor Dan Sullivan included a request for funding of the road in the city's annual capital budget requests.

The state Legislature allocated $20 million in funding during the 2013 session, and the city transferred the money to state DOT to handle the development.

Berkowitz said Friday about $17 million was left in the budget. He said he plans to ask the Legislature to reallocate the money toward the city's effort to modernize the Port of Anchorage, which he said still needs more than $300 million in new funding.

"The current restraints facing the State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage have already forced significant cuts to capital programs that force us to focus on our highest priority needs, not wants," Berkowitz wrote, adding that the port was the city's "most immediate need."

Neighbors have opposed the U-Med road project for decades. In recent years, Democratic lawmakers who represent the area, including state Sens. Berta Gardner and Bill Wielechowski and Reps. Geran Tarr and Andy Josephson, have called for the state to strip the funding.

"This is something that my community has been strongly strongly opposed to for many years," Wielechowski said in a phone interview Friday night.

On Friday on Facebook, Gardner thanked Berkowitz, writing: "U-Med Road dead!"

Road opponent Carolyn Ramsey said her group, Citizens for Responsible Development, was excited about Berkowitz's decision, but members would meet on Sunday to discuss how to move forward. She said the main concern would be the project restarting at another point in the future.

"It's a huge part of the battle, it's a huge step forward, but I'm not going to raise it up and say we completely won the war yet," Ramsey said.

The project's supporters include hospitals and universities who said the road would ease congestion and improve access for ambulances. In an interview Saturday morning, Bill Spindle, vice chancellor of administrative services at the University of Alaska Anchorage, expressed disappointment at Berkowitz's decision.

"We're the second-largest employment hub in the state, and we continue to grow and grow," Spindle said. "It's been our thought for a long time that more traffic flow opportunities would be good for the district."

He said the university will continue to press for a road through the U-Med district.

Other lawmakers echoed those concerns on Friday.

"It's a congestion nightmare if you have to go through there," said Sen. Anna McKinnon, R-Eagle River, on Friday. "It's unfortunate this administration can't support a process that's been in place for decades now."

Editor's note: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. Saturday to include a comment from UAA.

ADN reporter Nat Herz contributed reporting.

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