OPINION: Anchorage should prioritize people over speed downtown

On May 10, Anchorage’s Assembly, after spending many months of analysis and more than three hours of public hearing and discussion, approved $6 million for a homeless navigation center in a split vote. The Assembly was visibly exhausted as the discussion ended.

Twenty minutes later, without any presentation of content and virtually no discussion of facts, the Assembly approved spending $1.27 billion for transportation projects in Anchorage’s four-year transportation program. That $1.27 billion will literally cast in concrete the city’s footprint for a generation to come, and the vast majority of it will go to freeway construction. Unfortunately, Assembly members were told they could not extend the time allotted to consider and comment, and they adopted the program with no discussion of its merits.

South Addition is one of the city’s historic neighborhoods, and we live with four high-speed roadways next to our homes and schools. Designed to get commuters to work and freight from the port, little to no thought went into how children would cross those streets, safely catch a bus, ride bicycles or even sleep peacefully through the night. We smell the exhaust fumes, suffer from asthma and heart disease and angst over greenhouse gases.

Over the decades, I and L streets have been somewhat tamed north of 13th, but speeds on A and C streets remain dangerously high, especially considering they run next to well-loved homes, the Delaney Park Strip, a public garden and three public schools. The posted speed limits are already too high at 35 mph, and actual speeds are documented at 45 mph and faster. Uncontrolled traffic depresses investment in prime residential land within walking distance to downtown and Midtown, while housing is scarce. Residents complain about drag racing and revving engines, especially at night. C Street has a blind hill at 12th Avenue where schoolchildren cross unprotected, and A Street has no crossing signals at all between 9th Avenue and Fireweed Lane.

There is some good news, though. The Federal Highway Administration is offering help. This March, they issued a safety strategy to redirect urban investments into “Complete Streets,” defined as “being safe, and feeling safe” for everyone using the street, not just the drivers. USDOT is targeting urban “arterials” with this initiative, exactly like A and C streets.

The feds explain that to be safe for all, vehicles must be slowed by redesigning the road itself. And that’s what South Addition is requesting for A and C streets. Instead of spending hundreds of millions to bring more high-speed traffic into town, AMATS should prioritize urban infill and redevelopment that will benefit residents and businesses. Anchorage has not yet welcomed these new policies. Our road builders recently scored potential projects for funding, and while A and C Complete Streets scored well, the project was not recommended for funding, even though projects that scored significantly lower were recommended. One of them will cost 5-10 times more than rebuilding A and C streets and will encourage more traffic to boot.

As Amanda Moser, former director of Downtown Partnership, explained it, high-speed roads harm public spaces and simple commerce. “When you look at downtowns worldwide, anytime you prioritize the movement of people over the movement of cars, you see increased sales at bars and restaurants. You see more vibrancy, more activation, more folks out in the space.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of a vibrant, walkable downtown. When people describe cities as having “no there there,” they mean it’s a collection of businesses and residences, but without a dynamic and lively town center. Complete Streets will take us there. When people find Anchorage attractive, it will bring not just more tourists but more businesses as well.

AMATS Policy Committee can do the right thing at its meeting on Thursday, May 26. They have the final say in how this $1.27 billion will be spent. The meeting will be streamed, and there will be opportunity for public comment. The committee should step up to the plate and spend wisely on projects that will get more people out of their cars and build the city’s energy, commerce and sustainability.

You can help by contacting your state and Assembly representatives, and also AMATS members Christopher Constant, Forrest Dunbar and Meg Zaletel to support A and C streets becoming Complete Streets. Ask them to start shifting Anchorage’s investments away from more freeway lanes and into modern, healthy and safe urban roads, trails and transit. Funding this relatively inexpensive downtown project is a reasonable, beneficial first step.

Patrice Parker, Daniel Volland and Tamas Deak are South Addition residents. Volland is vice president of the South Addition Community Council and an Anchorage Assembly candidate.

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