Chugiak residents are frustrated with roadwork done on the Old Glenn Highway last year that they say makes unsafe a well-used roadside path the community fought hard to get.
State Department of Transportation officials say the new design was the best solution available while staying within the constraints of a limited project budget and actually offers some benefits over the old separated path, in that it can be plowed more quickly after snowfall.
The dispute is over two short sections of path along the Old Glenn Highway, near the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center and Chugiak Elementary School. As part of a multiyear road rehabilitation project along the Old Glenn Highway between Eagle River and Peters Creek, the road there was widened and a new paved path built.
But near the Senior Center and the school, the paved path merges alongside the Old Glenn. Transportation spokesman Rick Feller said in early designs of the rehabilitation project it became clear the road corridor would be narrower in that area. Blame it on topography and limited right-of-way, he said.
State says path is safe
Feller and state transportation engineer Jim Amundsen said the new path meets all required safety design criteria.
But community members say the path feels much less safe than their old path. Plowing this winter has left berms that narrow the walking space, and cars have used the walking path like a third lane, said Ted Carlson, vice president of the senior center's board of directors.
"There was one spot there where the eastbound lane was completely on the bike path ... and the westbound lane was where the eastbound lane should be," Carlson said. "I went by there the other day and there were kids walking from school, and they were walking in the roadway. It's totally unacceptable."
Deborah Jones said her family moved to the Needels Loop area in part because of the ability to walk to key nearby places the post office, park and school. She said she used the path frequently to go to the post office and for charity race training.
"I walked that thing every morning," she said. "I never, ever, ever felt afraid. You can't pay me to go out there now.
"It was peaceful and safe, two words that do not apply anymore," Jones added.
Mary Susan Goocey, another frequent path user, said she and her grandchildren have had to find other routes to reach the nearby elementary school playground, rather than using the more direct path, which she believes is unsafe.
"That was something we really enjoyed. We don't have a lot of amenities out here," she said.
A matter of five feet
"Earlier on, our plans were to leave that five-foot separation between the path and the shoulder (of the road) as a grass swale," Feller said.
But once the right-of-way and topography challenges arose, Feller said local maintenance workers were unable to maintain a separated path.
"When that became known, we changed that five-foot separation from ... a grass swale to a paved four-stripe separation," he said. "We felt we could do a better job, given our manpower and our man force in being able to clear both the newly rehabbed highway and the pathway at the same time."
State transportation engineer Jim Amundsen said attaching the path to the road means it can be cleared earlier, too, generally several days before paths separated by a ditch are cleared.
"When we looked at this, that 1,500-foot section is right across from the elementary school. We knew the expectation from the community was that we would get to it fairly quickly. That's why we wanted to figure out the best way to get maintenance on that stretch as we could," Amundsen said.
A March 18 letter from Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken to the Chugiak Community Council outlined plans to improve safety in the two areas. The plans were already part of the Old Glenn road rehabilitation project, such as street lighting, flashing yellow lights demarking the 20 mph school zone, school zone warning signs, and a crosswalk near the school.
"All of those will help further safety for anybody using that area," Amundsen said.
Feller added that other traffic control measures, such as a rumble strip separating the path from the roadway is also being discussed.
Chugiak Representative Bill Stoltze, at a recent community council meeting, agreed to look into the matter. By phone last week, Stoltze said he finds it ironic that, in a project aimed at improving nonmotorized paths, the state made two of the most heavily used sections of the path feel less safe.
Stoltze said he hopes to find a solution that works for the community. He met with transportation officials and said the governor's office is aware of the issue, too.
"I'm not totally satisfied but ... at least they're listening. We've got some time before the construction season starts. They know we're serious about it," Stoltze said.
Rindi White is a Valley freelancer writer. To see the Chugiak Community Council letter to Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken, as well as his response, go to Alaskastar.com.