Now that the long-overdue repaving of Anchorage's celebrated Tony Knowles Coastal Trail has finally begun, those of us who use the city's most popular trail might reasonably ask: What is the intended lifespan of the newly resurfaced path? And is this year's construction being held to the highest-possible standards?
I raise these questions because of what's happened to the one-mile section of already-resurfaced trail just south of the city's Wastewater Treatment Plant between mileposts 4.1 and 5.1. That section was repaved in fall 2011, as a lead-up "pilot project" to this summer's work. Substantial cracks began to appear by spring 2012, only a half-year after new asphalt was laid down. And even more fracturing was revealed as snow melted from the trail this spring.
City parks superintendent Holly Spoth-Torres has said that lessons were learned from the pilot project effort. I certainly hope so. On a recent walk of that one-mile section, I counted 10 cracks that measured at least 25 feet long. Three exceeded 100 feet. And along one curved section of trail, the cracks in some spots already measure an inch across and several inches deep (penetrating completely through the asphalt layer).
In other words, asphalt that was paved a year-and-a-half ago has cracks that are comparable to some of the original trail's worst fracturing, which took years to develop.
Along that same bend in the trail, a line of plants has pushed through the asphalt near its edges, further evidence of problems with the paving material and/or the way it was laid down.
All of this is unacceptable and should be cause for concern — and reason to take more care and do a better job — as contractors hired by the municipality repave another seven miles of the 11-mile-long trail this summer. Why spend $2.25 million for a new and presumably improved trail if it's going to start deteriorating badly in a year's time or less?
I have one other concern: the number of trees to be cut down along the repaired trail, primarily between mile markers 4.5 and 7.5. Dozens of trees, all of them cottonwoods or willows that I can tell, were marked with pink flagging and spray paint last summer. Several have already been felled and it seems the rest are likely to be taken down this summer while the trail is repaved.
I suppose an argument can be made for cutting some number of potential "problem trees" that border the trail and whose roots might damage it. But why would trees several feet from the trail — in some instances, 10 feet or more — be removed? This seems nothing more than overkill.
What makes this tree removal all the more baffling is that I have found no clear evidence that roots have done any significant damage to this section of the Coastal Trail. There is none of the transverse fracturing or upheaved pavement that I've seen on other trails where roots have been a problem. Why should roots be a concern for the newly paved trail, unless its quality is less than the original? And why would the city invest the money and effort to build anything less than the highest quality path, given the Coastal Trail's importance to Anchorage residents?
It's clear that the pilot-project section of trail was not repaved to especially high standards, despite the statement posted on the municipality's project webpage that says, "In 2011 a one-mile segment of the trail was successfully resurfaced just south of Point Woronzof."
If muni officials consider this highly fractured segment a success, big problems may lie ahead.
We can only hope — and should demand — that city officials have the foresight to do better with this year's resurfacing. Both Anchorage's signature trail and all of us who use the trail (or have helped pay for it) deserve the best work — and best results — possible.
Anchorage writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including "Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness." He frequently writes about Alaska's wildlife and wildlands, including the wild nature to be found in Alaska's urban center.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.