State to study Parks Highway and try to predict its future

Posted: Monday, November 20, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State transportation officials are planning an extensive study of the Parks Highway.

They're trying to determine how the highway has changed in the past 30 years, going from a lone ribbon of pavement across the wilderness to a miles'-long commercial strip and one of the busiest roadways in the state.

The study will try to make an educated guess at how the Parks Highway might grow over the next third of a century

The project was state Transportation Commissioner Joe Perkins' idea.

''I'm trying to get ahead of the game,'' Perkins told the Anchorage Daily News. ''I'm trying to build now with provisions for what the future might be.''

The study is expected to cost about $1 million. It will include an aerial survey of 323 miles of the Parks Highway, from its intersection with the Glenn Highway to its end at Fairbanks.

The study also calls for meetings with government officials, public discussions and the appointment of an advisory panel to oversee the process.

Perkins said he's concerned about development along the highway, including congestion through Wasilla. Conflicts and problems are cropping up in other places, he said.

The speed limit at Healy, just north of Denali National Park and Preserve, has been dropped to 45 mph because of concerns about traffic.

Better predictions about development could save money, he said.

For instance, the state recently spent millions to buy private property near Wasilla so it could expand the highway to four lanes.

''Imagine, had we known we were going to do this 20 years ago, we could have made provisions for the right of way then,'' Perkins said.

Traffic often backs up through Wasilla because of the businesses that line the highway, and development has crept steadily north. New roadside stores, from RV parks to gift shops offering chain-sawed figurines, sprout every summer.

Truckers consider it dangerous to drive through Wasilla because so many motorists turn on and off the highway, said Frank Dillon, executive vice president of the Alaska Trucking Association, a supporter of the study.

The backups slow the trucks, which costs money, he said.

The study will look at ways to deal with conflicts, said Murph O'Brien, a highway department spokesman. For instance, where can the highway be widened? Where does it make sense to add frontage lanes and bike paths to limit problems between local and through traffic?

One key question is when a bypass route should be built in Wasilla, O'Brien said.

That's a touchy subject with local business owners, who fear losing customers, Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin said. While she thinks a bypass likely will gain favor as congestion increases, she is careful not to say the B word.

''Let's not put our heads in the sand,'' she said. ''Let's realize 15- to 20 years from now, we're probably looking at an alternative traffic corridor.''

When it opened in 1971, the highway was heralded in press reports as a marvel of engineering and as ''Alaska's missing link.'' A few years later it was officially named for George A. Parks, the Alaska territorial governor from 1925 to 1933.

It sliced 120 miles and several hours off the previous route from Anchorage to Fairbanks: Driving east on the Glenn Highway and then cutting north along the Richardson Highway.

The $147 million project took 12 years. It took so long that Gov. Bill Egan, who oversaw the start in 1959 during his first term, didn't see it finished until his third term.

When work started in earnest, the highway ran 50 miles north from Anchorage to Willow and 56 miles south from Fairbanks to the Nenana River. In between was a 234-mile gap, except for 30 miles around Cantwell.

One of the places it changed was Talkeetna. Before the highway opened, Talkeetna was an end-of-the-road town populated by Bush pilots, hunting guides and homesteaders, connected to Anchorage by a rough gravel road.

To get groceries, Roberta Sheldon said, she and her husband often flew to Anchorage because it was faster and easier than driving.

These days, Talkeetna swarms every summer with tourists, sightseers and climbers.

''That's how it is,'' Sheldon said. ''It's the access.''

Perkins hopes the study will help engineers, communities and businesses try to predict and prepare for change.

Still, he acknowledges, seeing the future is tricky.

''We're not going to be 100 percent correct,'' he said. ''But if we're 60 percent correct, we're better off than we are now, where we're just building project by project.''

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