Muni memo sends Elmore extension back to drawing board

The proposed preferred route for the U-Med District Northern Access Road.
The proposed preferred route for the U-Med District Northern Access Road.

As the design for Anchorage’s contentious Northern Access Project — the proposed 2-lane road connecting Elmore Road with Bragaw Street in Anchorage’ U-Med District – nears completion, the municipality’s planning division released a memorandum recommending the project be sent back to the drawing board.

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In the memo, the planning division says, “It seems clear that the design of the preferred alignment is driven by funding constraints rather than by the context of the area and needs of all future users.”

Carolyn Ramsey is the chair of Citizens for Responsible Development – U-Med – a group that opposes the road. She says the memo delves into the deficiencies of the road’s current design.

“Including the trail complications to the Iditarod, the Rondy Dogsled Races, the Tour of Anchorage, the disconnect for any continuity for the ski trails,” she said. “To wildlife passage; there’s wetlands concerns and future costs to the municipality.”

Though the road would be a state Department of Transportation project, with $20 million allocated by the legislature for construction, the municipality would be responsible for certain aspects of maintenance, like street sweeping, plowing and landscaping.

DOT would be responsible for upgrades and re-paving.

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The state acknowledges that $20 million funding amount limited design options.

In the current plan, Department of Transportation spokesperson Shannon McCarthy says the department had to limit pedestrian bridges – one is planned near the northern end, and another potential bridge would be added to the southern end at a later date.

“What we’d like to see in the future, perhaps, and this design does not preclude that, is perhaps an additional roundabout and a separated pathway,” McCarthy said. “Right now, this has bike lanes on both sides of the road, plus 10 foot sidewalks on both. And a separated pathway will be an alternate, but it looks like this is all we can afford at this time.”

The muni’s criteria requires the road to have its pedestrian pathways separated from the road by at least 10 feet.

Ramsey says area community councils have been opposed to the road for years. And the budget-constrained design plus the planning division’s memo, have reinforced many of their concerns – particularly those regarding safety, with an estimated 10,000 vehicles rolling through the area each day for the first year.

“This is dangerous for our children, when there’s absolutely not mitigation methods put into place to help either slow that traffic down or get our kids safely across the road with East High, and Russian Jack school on the other side, and Alaska Native Cultural Charter School down at the other end,” Ramsey said. “So, these are all big concerns and we value our community, our neighborhoods, our children, and we value our municipality and don’t want to see any more money going out the door than we need to.”

The safety issues along with others about the road’s impact on the surrounding wetlands, wildlife, recreation in the area and a constrained budget make the current design unacceptable to groups like Ramsey’s.

The two major hospitals and two universities are strongly in favor of the road.

planning and zoning

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz plans to get representatives on both sides of the issue together for further discussion, to see if common ground can be reached. The Municipality’s Director of Economic and Community Development, Chris Schutte, spoke on behalf of the mayor.

“What’s important to Mayor Berkowitz is that he have the ability to do some additional due diligence in looking at the project, to ensure that if the project is to go forward, that it is a project that actually meets the regional transportation demands, but not at the expense of providing the road type or road design that’s required for the area,” Schutte said.

There’s no exact timeline on when the two sides might meet.

The current design is nearing completion and is due to be evaluated by Anchorage’s planning and zoning commission. It will be up for discussion Monday alongside the planning division’s memo, which recommends the project be redesigned and construction postponed until funding is available to ensure the road is appropriate for the area.

Calls to the municipal planning division were not returned by deadline.