As some have already reported, the Alaska DOT is planning to expand the Seward Highway with a jaw-dropping $130 million investment. This lump sum will go to renovate and expand a single 1.5-mile stretch of highway in South Anchorage. The majority of this budget will go to expanding the highway, adding a roundabout and interchange, with a small portion going to creating bike lanes and sidewalks. This project, as well as its eye-watering cost, is both radical and completely unnecessary, to the point of parody. It has been talked to death in more detail, but I believe it is worth mentioning in relation to another subject: commuter rail.
The majority of Alaskans live in Anchorage and the neighboring Mat-Su region, totaling nearly 400,000 residents — more than 50% of the state’s total population, all in an area half the size of Delaware. This sort of density is the logical setup for a public transit corridor connecting the main population centers.
And why not? Trains are cost-efficient, produce very little in terms of carbon emissions, and can move large quantities of people large distances very fast. Instead of having 100 cars on the highway, creating gridlock and belching carbon emissions, you have a single train with 100 passengers, with lots of leg room, rolling down the Hay Flats with no delays. If the tourists can take a train from the airport, why can’t Alaskans?
People have been talking about Alaska commuter rail for decades. As recently as 2018, former Gov. Bill Walker tried advancing a plan to run a daily link between Anchorage, Wasilla and Palmer. This proposal would have allowed commuters to have a safer, more relaxing and faster trip to and from work, free from traffic and accidents. Its cost? An estimated $8.2 million annual operating budget, with $7 million for initial startup. Detractors said that the project would siphon money away from more important projects, with Gov. Dunleavy finally abolishing the investigatory task force in early 2019, killing the project.
Let’s do some math to determine the possible profit this venture could bring in. Recent estimates suggest that 14,000 residents in the Valley commute to work in Anchorage, which is costly in and of itself. This is true both for the commuter — from fuel, car maintenance and time wasted commuting — and the state itself, which continually funnels money into maintaining the highway and expanding it, falling into the money pit of induced demand. If we pegged the cost of a ticket to the current price of gas of an Anchorage trip (at the conservative 30 mpg), the ticket would be about $5 per trip. If 25% of work commuters were to make the switch, and were the only riders in this hypothetical, that would still net in over $6.3 million per year in profits, recouping the majority of its operating cost. This number would naturally increase from use by others as well as from Mat-Su population growth. This price tag also doesn’t consider the myriad beneficial factors that having commuter rail would entail, such as boosted local economies, fewer highway accidents and deaths, reduced pressure on Anchorage property price tags, and increased tourism. How is a mostly recouped $8 million per year too expensive, but an unnecessary $100 million highway expansion isn’t?
Driving is a hassle. It’s costly, boring, dangerous and time-consuming. Time that could be used sleeping, relaxing or spending time with family is instead used to drive. Being in a train frees you from that constraint, allowing you to essentially regain two hours of your life you wouldn’t have gotten back otherwise. They also allow the elderly and the disabled more freedom, both physically and economically, as they are able to move around more and travel farther on their own then they would have otherwise.
Of course, there is no use having commuter rail if there is nothing to do near the stations, whether they be isolated and far from city centers, or the town itself is too low density to effectively walk anywhere. One thing that could encourage more people to use commuter rail could be zoning reform near stations and public transit. A good example would be Chicago, which has recently adopted policies that incentivize high-density construction within 1,000 feet of train stops. This urbanist, mixed-use zoning would be highly beneficial in reviving the cores of our largest towns, as well as making our city centers more attractive and pedestrian friendly, in turn making commuter rail more attractive and accessible.
We need to strike when the iron is hot. Alaska’s population is decreasing, and without reforms that incentivize people to stay, that trend will continue. The Build Back Better Plan has $80 billion earmarked for rail and $85 billion for public transportation, meaning that if Alaska acts soon, the federal government could pay for the accommodations and renovations necessary, not costing Alaskans a thing.
This plan would not be easy. It would require sustained political will from both sides of the aisle to be truly effective, as well as cooperation on both the state and local levels to make it work at all. But more and more people are turning on to the idea of public transit. People Mover buses are becoming more popular in the Anchorage area, and Valley Transit has gotten its foot in the door in the Mat-Su. Wasilla and Palmer were both built by the Alaska Railroad, the town centers radiating out from the train stations that ferried pioneers and goods to these towns. It’s time that we go back to our roots and update them for the benefit of all in the 21st century.
Daniel Bitler is an Alaska-born undergraduate student studying STEM in Chicago, with an interest in public policy and law.
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