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Debate over bicyclist safety in Anchorage highlights contrast between candidates Berkowitz and Demboski

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 9, 2015

Questions about bicycle safety during a mayoral debate on the eve of the Anchorage election this week drew sharp distinctions between Ethan Berkowitz and Amy Demboski, the two candidates now competing in the May 5 runoff.

Berkowitz said the city should recognize the growing number of bikers and consider lighting improvements or dedicated routes to address safety issues. Demboski said bike safety wasn't a priority for her, though she said she'd support a public awareness campaign to remind bikers and drivers to "look both ways."

Demboski said her top issues are public safety, police staffing and fiscal restraint; Berkowitz says quality of life is an issue for him, though he too emphasizes public safety.

The candidates' perspectives on the issue come as the city of Anchorage works to expand bike paths and trails to meet growing demand. In 2010, the Assembly adopted the Anchorage Bicycle Plan, which assessed the current state of biking in the city, including crash data, and laid the foundation for establishing a bicycle network. The plan's first goal: "Improve connectivity and safety of the transportation network."

Demboski was elected to the Assembly in 2013, three years after the bike plan was adopted.

During the Monday night debate on KTVA Channel 11, anchor and moderator Joe Vigil directed a question from social media at Demboski: "What will you do to improve bicycle safety for commuters?"

"Well, honestly, my focus right now is safety for the whole community, so it's hiring more cops," Demboski said.

"How about bicycle commuters?" Vigil asked.

"Bicycle commuters … I've got to tell you, it's not my primary focus," Demboski said.

She said the city should keep the streets shoveled and plowed. But she said her main concerns would be public safety, making sure the fire department is adequately staffed and meeting basic infrastructure needs.

At that point, former Mayor Rick Mystrom, a panelist, interjected with a follow-up.

"That's good; it's always good to go back to public safety. But we've had three bicyclists killed in the last 18 months now," Mystrom said. "So it's a fairly serious issue."

He went on to say that Anchorage has a strong trail system, but some of the trails are adjacent to roads. He said the issue deserves some attention.

"You can't just say we'll deal with public safety in general without considering all the elements," Mystrom said.

Demboski said she would support a public awareness campaign to remind bikers and drivers to "look both ways." But she said her primary focus as mayor would be what she called the "essential services" of government.

"I'm not going to invest millions of dollars into creating new bike paths -- that's not going to happen," Demboski said.

But according to city records, money is already being spent on improving Anchorage roads and expanding the city's bicycling network under the guidance of the 2010 city bike plan. Through a combination of local, state and federal transportation funds, 17 projects on Anchorage roads are in the planning phase for construction in 2016. The city is also set to complete resurfacing work on the Chester Creek Trail this summer.

The projects range from shoulder striping to adding bike lanes. One project involves transforming 10th Avenue near downtown into a bike boulevard or a street with low motorized traffic designed to give priority to bicycles.

The 10th Avenue project has already received a $100,000 state grant, said Lori Schanche, the non-motorized transportation coordinator for the city.

Schanche said state legislators allocated that and other grants after hearing from constituents.

"It's not like we're asking," Schanche said. "We're getting this money."

A number of the bike projects fall on city-maintained roads, Schanche said, and would be eligible for bond funding. The state also maintains some roads within the municipality's borders, most of them large thoroughfares.

While Anchorage's extensive trail system provides bike access for commuters in some parts of the city, there are fewer than 10 miles of bicycle lanes on city roadways. Meanwhile, on-street bicycle lanes are "nonexistent" in Chugiak, Eagle River and Girdwood, according to the Anchorage Bike Plan. Demboski lives in Chugiak, Berkowitz in West Anchorage.

In addition to identifying future projects and outlining a funding plan, the bike plan detailed the increasing use of bicycles as an affordable transportation option.

"We've just got a whole lot more people bicycling," Schanche said, noting that the number of people participating in Anchorage's Bike to Work Day grew from 1,400 people to 4,200 between 2007 and 2014. "When you've got more people, you've got to plan for safer roads."

That includes educating people on biking laws, she said.

During the KTVA debate, Berkowitz said the city has not done enough to recognize Anchorage's growing bicycle population, particularly winter bikers. He said lighting should be adequate enough for bikers, drivers and pedestrians to see one another, and he said he'd also support a public awareness campaign to make bikers more visible.

He said the city also needs to give "serious thought" to dedicated streets and routes for bicyclists to improve safety.

In a questionnaire from Bike Anchorage, the nonprofit organization vying to make Anchorage more bike-friendly, Berkowitz also said that other partnerships will be needed to expand bike infrastructure amid declining state and federal budgets. Demboski did not respond to the questionnaire, the group said in a Facebook post on Wednesday.

The group's Facebook post also linked to the KTVA debate and excerpted the two candidates' views on bicycling.

Neither Berkowitz nor Demboski returned messages seeking additional comment.

Demboski said during the debate that she wasn't sure if she'd dedicate streets just to bicyclists. She added that her husband, an Anchorage fire captain, rides his bike in the winter and has almost been hit several times.

But she called Anchorage a "motorized community."

"A public service campaign, that's fine, but we can't be everything to everybody," Demboski said. "We have to put our priorities in line, especially in this economic climate we're in. To me, unfortunately, bicycle safety is important but it's not the first thing I'm going to focus on."

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