Planners search for answers to highway congestions at Denali

Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000

DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE (AP) -- A seasonal city springs up each summer on the Parks Highway at the entrance to Denali National Park and planners are trying to figure out the best way to route traffic through the commercial district that's come to be known as ''Glitter Gulch.''

The main highway linking Alaska's two largest cities passes right through the middle of the district. Big rigs hauling drilling equipment north thunder past Florida retirees looking for a pullout for their 40-foot motor homes. Pedestrians seeking reindeer sausage and souvenirs dodge both.

Anywhere else, traffic would be rerouted around the area. But the Alaska Range's 5,000-foot peaks restrict the road to the narrow canyon cut by the rolling Nenana River. Businesses hem in the highway and cling to cliffs overlooking the river.

''It's so congested,'' Jim Young, Fairbanks operations manager for trucking firm Lynden Transport Inc., told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''You really should keep your speed down in there.''

Two years ago the state Department of Transportation proposed building frontage roads on either side of the highway to funnel slow-traveling locals and tourists off the Parks and let through-traffic zip by.

Local backlash was so vehement that DOT retreated. The Denali Borough Assembly created a special 20-member panel to develop alternatives and the panel is winnowing recommendations.

Three appear to have made the cut, according to Dave Talerico, owner of the Denali River View Inn and the panel's chairman: shifting the road about 150 feet east; cutting a channel for the main highway and then building access roads atop it on the surface; and building a modified version of DOT's frontage road plan.

A final recommendation is expected in mid-September.

The cheapest, simplest proposal -- dropping the speed limit a few notches -- works for now, but won't in the future given expected growth, Talerico said.

''The popularity of the national park and the growth of the area is going to require a new plan, a better road system,'' he said.

But there are complaints with just about every proposal on the panel's short list.

Shifting the road east about 150 feet onto mostly undeveloped land would contain development on the mostly developed west side.

''That accomplishes nothing,'' said Mike Crofoot, owner of Denali Crow's Nest, the second-oldest business on the strip, and member of the Denali Borough panel.

The shift is minor, and ''substantial acreage'' on the east side will be developed even if the road is realigned, he said.

Digging a massive trench for the highway and then laying parking and access roads above it is probably the most expensive option, according to a consultant hired by the commission.

The modified DOT plan -- the cheapest route -- has disadvantages as well. It would likely involve some combination of frontage roads, reduced speed limits, pedestrian walkways, tunnels, possibly even a stop sign with a crosswalk. And no matter how available a walkway or tunnel is, pedestrians will likely continue to scamper across the highway, planners concede.

''You have all these little old people trying to cross this three-lane highway with through-traffic ripping through there,'' Crofoot said. ''You have people getting stranded in that third lane. It's just not a good scene.''

For that reason, some feel a reduced speed limit would cure a lot of problems. The canyon's speed limit just recently dropped to 40 mph during the summer. Before that, only a yellow warning sign recommended reduced speed.

Young, the Lynden manager, believes the limit could drop even lower--possibly to 20 mph.

''It is only a mile or two down in there,'' he said. ''You'd still maintain your schedule.''

But some visitors see a different solution to the congestion: control the region's growth.

Comparisons with Gatlinburg, Tenn., the hyper-commercial zone just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park where traffic can back up for hours, came easily to two Connecticut tourists last week.

''It's like Dollywood (just outside Gatlinburg),'' said Lucy Beebe who spent last Thursday touring the park with a friend. ''You don't want that. Keep it a national park.''



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