Before Alaska starts building new highways, it should fix the ones it has

Existing roads need attention

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

I certainly support our new governor's vision to expand the road system in Alaska. I have little doubt that this can be done responsibly with a minimal impact to the environment. Alaska has so many untapped resources and gaining access through a working road system is certainly a key factor in our future.

Having said that, I think we need to examine our existing roads and access some realistic needs before we start building new roads. Our current road system, with a few exceptions, is essentially outdated. Our highways built in the 1960s for a relatively light traffic load, no longer provide safe, efficient means of travel to Alaskans.

Highways on the Kenai Peninsula, for example, have been upgraded in spots but are still, for the most part, nothing more than what would be considered a secondary road in the Lower 48. Highways to Seward and Homer are both very narrow and dangerous. These highways are arguably the busiest in Alaska and much of the traffic consists of oversize tractor-trailer rigs. Just this past fall and winter there have been numerous accidents, many of them very tragic, that can be attributed to the narrow highways on the peninsula. On these narrow roads there is no place for a driver to evade a potential accident. I travel the Sterling Highway south of Soldotna frequently, and almost always there is some sort of traffic holdup or accident or fatality on this road.

There are numerous spots on peninsula roads that, year after year, have accidents. The Kasilof River bridge crossing is one; the sharp corner new Gwin's Lodge in Cooper Landing is another. We have expanded some of the highways in some places, but, without developing a realistic assessment of what happens on these highways, we are not really solving the problems.

The Kenai River crossing in Soldot-na is an ex-ample. There is four-lane traffic bridge and yet the bridge itself is only two lanes. This creates a choke point for traffic, particularly in the summer season. It just doesn't make good sense to make part of the highway wide and safe, allowing a normal traffic flow and all of a sudden it turns back into a country road.

There is a relatively new five-car holdup rule in which a vehicle holding up five cars is supposed to pull over so others may pass. The law may be great on paper, but it makes no sense in practice on the Sterling Highway where there are virtually no pullouts.

In the summer, the traffic gets backed up, and people who are not sightseeing, who just want to get to work or on with their business are held up and they get angry and frustrated. This is another hazard, people pass in unsafe places because they are tired of following slow moving traffic.

Any work being conducted along the highway such as power and gas line work, sign installation, etc. compounds the narrow road problem. If there is an accident there is nowhere for other drivers to go to avoid it, or it completely blocks the road and the problem is made worse. A motorist who has vehicle problems has nowhere to go and trying to actually work on the vehicle along these roads is dangerous for all.

More pullouts for motorists and sightseers would help eliminate some of the problem. Just having places for motorists who are strangers to the area to pull off and figure out where they are also would help. Currently, it is not uncommon to have motor homes stopped literally in the road trying to figure out how to turn around and go back where they came from because there is no place to park.

We want tourists to come and spend money traveling through our state, yet we won't spend any money to make doing that a pleasurable experience. Alaskans are continually frustrated at the influx of tourists in the summer. Their presence makes everything slow down for our day-to-day business. That is because we are essentially stuffing 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag.

It is no different than the overcrowded fishing areas. We have advertised and promoted our sportfishing areas, and yet we have done little to make more access for the crowds that come each year.

We have created an image for the world of a beautiful recreation area, salmon and halibut fishing and beautiful scenery. "Come and visit the world famous Kenai River," we say, and yet we have not developed the infrastructure to support the numbers who want to see this beautiful place. There are not enough campgrounds, not enough access to the rivers, lakes and other areas that we have asked tourists to come to and spend their money.

If we are going to succeed in developing this state, we have to look at our existing infrastructure and bring it into the 21st century so it may support future development.

Jacquline Erion has lived on the Kenai Peninsula since 1988. She makes her home in Clam Gulch.

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