The Alaska Department of Transportation is making another run at improving sluggish traffic in Midtown Anchorage, and it's asking for the public's help to figure out how. The project, in its early planning stages, will focus on the Seward Highway intersections from 20th Avenue to the Tudor Road interchange.
"We're looking for a vision in that section of Midtown, and we want to hear from the highway users what their vision is," said project manager Sean Holland.
DOT studies have shown those intersections have some of the most accidents and longest traffic delays in the city, Holland said. While addressing that, planners also hope to improve the area for pedestrians and reduce cut-through traffic in nearby residential neighborhoods.
If this project sounds familiar, it should. Holland said the state has tried multiple times to design and implement improvements along that stretch of roadway.
"We've tried and failed in recent history twice," Holland said.
From 2007 to 2011, the Highway-to-Highway project studied ways the Seward Highway could connect with the Glenn Highway more efficiently. That effort resulted in options that ranged from a sunken freeway through Fairview to new highways constructed through residential areas.
"Highway-to-Highway was just so big, dollar-wise and scope-wise, that we just couldn't push that whole thing through," Holland said.
In more recent years, a project with a narrow focus on the intersection of the Seward Highway and 36th Avenue reached the design phase before it lost steam.
While data collected during those projects is useful and being updated, Holland said, the latest Midtown Congestion Relief project represents a fresh start at tackling some decades-old issues.
The Seward-36th intersection remains high on the list of priorities, and a stubborn puzzle for traffic engineers. As anyone who has traveled eastbound on 36th Avenue during rush hour can attest, its proximity to Old Seward Highway makes for slow progress.
"It almost functions as one big intersection at peak-hour traffic times," said Galen Jones, a DOT project engineer.
Plans drawn up during the last 36th Avenue project, studied from 2012 to 2015, called for the Seward Highway to be elevated there. Ramps would carry vehicles underneath to the innermost lanes of the highway. Holland expressed skepticism that it would've functioned well, in part due to its proximity to Benson Boulevard and Tudor Road.
This time, DOT will examine a broader section of the city, from Tudor Road to 20th Avenue on the north and south sides, and from C Street to Lake Otis Parkway on the east and west. That will include examining the places where drivers cut through residential neighborhoods in an attempt to avoid congestion.
Solving problems on the perimeter might just ease pressure on the Seward Highway corridor, Jones said.
"Maybe there's some things we can do at other spots that help us really make it work at 36th," he said.
Jones said one place they'll re-examine is the highway's existing interchange at Tudor Road. Constructed in 1975, it allowed Tudor to become one of the most heavily traveled routes for east-west traffic in the city. It, too, can be slow going at rush hour, Jones said.
"We'll be looking at how much longer that can still function," Jones said. "It seems like the traffic has already degraded."
Another goal of the project is to improve options for non-motorized traffic, where the highway acts as a barrier between residential streets and business districts.
"We don't see a lot of pedestrian and bike traffic there. Not a lot of non-motorized traffic. But that's because it's so challenging to get across those intersections," Holland said.
"That's one of our high priorities, to take a look at that and see how we can improve that connection."
Holland described another oddity: A pedestrian pathway exists along Seward Highway in several sections. But it's missing between 36th and Tudor, which keeps it from being a useful option for walkers and cyclists.
For now, the Midtown Congestion Relief project is funded only through its design phase. Construction wouldn't start until at least 2020, Holland said.
But for this project to have an outcome different from those before it, Holland said, community participation is essential.
"Our challenge is to find out how we can make this succeed. And I think what we're finding out is that we have to make this more of a community-friendly project," he said.
DOT's first open house on the Midtown Congestion Relief project is 3 to 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Loussac Library. The public can also comment on the project through DOT's interactive map.