The “U-Med Northern Access Road,” “Bragaw to Elmore Extension,” “U-Med Punch Through,” and the “Northern Access Project to the Medical District” are just a few of the names given to the same project over the past 50 years. The name doesn’t matter; the project is nothing short of a $37 million boondoggle for a problem that does not exist. A typical road is considered expensive at $1 million per mile. The proposed U-Med Road is only seven-tenths of a mile, with at least a $37 million price tag. The proposed state general obligation (GO) Bond allocates $22 million toward the U-Med Road. However, it does not include the $15 million worth of right-of-way (ROW) needed to build this boondoggle. And that’s far from the worst aspect of this project. The price also includes increased traffic in primary and secondary school zones and residential areas, congested intersections, increased pedestrian/vehicle conflict, and a loss of urban green space with popular trails.
To drum up public support, the mayor claims that the road will save five to seven minutes of drive time to the emergency room at Providence. That time savings is a fantasy. Let’s look at some facts. The shortcut would start at Bettye Davis East High School (currently 1.3 miles driving distance from the Providence ER) and would reduce that distance by 0.3 miles. Google Maps says it takes four minutes to drive that 1.3-mile route now. Well, what if UAA Drive is somehow blocked, you might ask? An ambulance might turn around and drive 1.4 miles to the Alaska Regional Hospital Emergency Room, also an estimated drive time of four minutes. Even doubling those times for hitting the lights wrong, someone in an ambulance in this area has about the best emergency room access in the state already. Consider adding an emergency room in South Anchorage if drive time is what’s killing people, instead of spending nearly $40 million to reduce travel distance by a few hundred yards.
So maybe five to seven minutes is fiction, but wouldn’t it still save some time to cut straight through? In 2011, DOWL conducted traffic studies and wrote a Reconnaissance Study Report on a proposed four-lane road. The report predicted a 32-82 seconds of time savings during peak travel time. Even this smaller time savings came with some big assumptions, however. The traffic modelers assumed that Bragaw Street (which is currently at capacity and over it in some places) would be relatively empty of traffic compared to today, because the “Highway to Highway” connection would be completed (remember that project? Not currently on the books for completion until after 2040). The same report predicted that without Highway to Highway, the U-Med Road would increase traffic on Bragaw Street by 50% and the Northern Lights/Bragaw intersection would fail.
So instead of an amazing shortcut that would save lives, what do we get for spending $22 million to $37 million? Fifty percent more traffic in the Bettye Davis East High and Russian Jack Elementary school zones and along the residential area of Bragaw Street. Sitting through multiple light cycles at the Northern Lights intersection, ambulances included. Health care workers leaving after their night shift and meeting 2,000 barely awake high school students. A de facto highway cutting through the heart of a pedestrian-centered university and medical district.
What do we lose? A major year-round non-motorized commuting route that currently connects downtown to East Anchorage and all the way to Service High School without crossing in front of a single vehicle. The Jim Mahaffey trail system at Alaska Pacific University and University of Alaska Anchorage is used by walkers, skiers, bikers and sled dogs. Some of the last remaining wetlands in the Chester Creek watershed soak up floodwater and keep it out of our aging storm drain system. In other words, we stand to lose both health and safety. No wonder 10 community councils have passed resolutions opposing this road.
The mayor needs to invest in Anchorage in ways that will not burden future generations. Let’s focus on the road projects that will improve our city and that the community is asking for, not the ones that create bottlenecks, traffic nightmares in school zones, or increase the stress on our already fragile storm drain system. Let’s finish the Spenard revitalization project. Fix Fireweed Boulevard. Put funding into optimizing the roads in and out of the Port of Alaska, and help revitalize downtown by getting the large trucks off streets used by tourists and locals. It’s time to invest in meaningful and community-driven projects — not boondoggles that will cripple another part of our city for decades to come.
Carolyn Ramsey serves as chair of Citizens for Responsible Development. She is also the president of the Airport Heights Community Council.
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