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Bad roads by stealth: Proposal would push the costs onto taxpayers

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Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 11:28 pm

Community perspective

Borough Assembly members Michael Dukes and Natalie Howard have submitted Ordinance 2012-14.

Again.

Born as Ordinance 2012-10, the latest version will be considered by the assembly this evening. If passed, it will exempt property developers from the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Title 17 road construction standards. 

While this ordinance initially seemed like it could reduce government regulation — and who doesn’t like that? — the end result will be much less positive. Experienced subdivision developers will have an incentive to build cheaper roads to boost profits, while private landowners will typically lack the expertise and funding to build high-quality roads. 

I worked for the borough public works department in the 1980s and can attest to the poor condition of many of the borough roads at that time. The people of the borough and the borough government have spent many years and untold amounts of money to fix many of the substandard roads from the 1970s when the pipeline brought demand for more houses and roads. They had to be created fast, and they were. 

Many were poor roads with inadequate surfacing and base thickness. They were soft, rutted, rough, overly steep or narrow, had poor intersections or sight distances or were combinations of all the above. The state created some subdivisions with no roads at all. In the 1980s, the borough ultimately spent in the range of $20 million to $25 million to fix substandard roads. 

The roads that were not fixed have plagued people who live on or near them ever since. Haystack Subdivision is one. Haystack was one of those state subdivisions created without constructed roads. The borough did what it could to repair them in the 1980s. Moreover, we are still involved, because the assembly just helped with another $100,000.

Martin and Rosie Creek subdivisions also were created without roads.

Martin was steep and a long way out of town and is still virtually inaccessible.

Rosie Creek still has substandard roads with little surfacing and many potholes, even though the state and borough have spent great sums on it — at least $1 million would be my guess. The condition of the roads there prevents homeowners from getting to town easily.  In a recent traffic study for the borough, I measured trips to town from Rosie Creek Subdivision using those rubber hoses you’ve seen laying across roads in the summer. The number of trips to town per house per day was only about one-half of the average number of trips for homes in the outlying subdivisions.

On the other hand, Cripple Creek Subdivision was created by the borough with fairly decent roads, and it is well developed with good homes. Note that the Cripple Creek roads make access to Rosie Creek possible, and Cripple Creek is the fastest way to town from Rosie Creek Subdivision even though Rosie Creek Road is shorter.

In my opinion, good roads are a prerequisite for good neighborhoods. If you are not sure if we need good roads, ask yourself some of these questions: Do you need to get to work reliably? Do you think a fire truck or a school bus should be able to get to every house, or only those houses on good roads? What happens when the school bus is damaged or goes off the side of a substandard road? Who should pay for the tow bill or the damages?

If Dukes and Howard think building good roads is too expensive for developers who own and control all the property and who can access needed capital because they own the property, how do they think a homeowner who owns some tiny percent of the land along a road is going to organize and finance the upgrade work later? The fact is, homeowners almost never can, and needed upgrades do not happen without government intervention and money. That is to say, your money. 

Several things will happen if this ordinance passes tonight.

One is land developers will make more money because most people do not know how to judge the quality of a road when they are looking to buy lots or houses. While the lots on poorer roads might sell for slightly less than lots on good roads, the discount will be less than needed to repair the road. 

Second, the state of Alaska could go back to its old habit of creating subdivisions without constructed roads, and the borough could join them.

Third, a lot of people will have their lives complicated by living on poor roads.

Fourth, future assembly members will get headaches dealing the problems caused by more poor roads and from wondering what the assembly in 2012 was drinking. You and I will pay for the worst of the roads to be fixed. And Dukes and Howard will be long gone.

 Dave Lanning is a professional civil engineer who has lived in Fairbanks more than 30 years. He is a commercial property owner and land developer in the borough. He is a past statewide president of the Alaska Society of Professional Engineers and was chosen as Fairbanks Engineer of the Year a few years ago.

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