FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Department of Transportation is doing a U-turn on the proposed McGrath Road extension that could have potentially cut through Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.
The state won’t build a new road connecting the Old Steese Highway and Farmers Loop to relieve congestion on the Johansen Expressway and Steese Highway but instead is planning to make revisions to existing roads and intersections to improve traffic flow, project manager Al Beck with the DOT said.
“When we started looking at does it make sense, does it fix the problem out there, the cost associated with it, public comment ... everything was aligning that this was not the proper fix,” Beck said.
The project ruffled the feathers of refuge lovers. More than 100 people showed up at a DOT open house two months ago to hear about the proposed road and most of the people who commented were opposed to the project, Beck said
“Public comment definitely is a major part of our decision-making process,” Beck said. “The vast majority of people who commented were not in favor of a new road to connect the two points.”
DOT wants to alleviate congestion at the corner of the Steese Highway and Johansen Expressway and to a lesser extent at the corner of the Steese Highway and Farmers Loop. Motorists at the intersection of the Steese Highway and Johansen Expressway face wait times longer than three minutes at the intersection, which classifies it as a failed intersection, according to DOT.
Bill Holman, president of Friends of Creamer’s Field, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the refuge, was glad to hear DOT is going in a different direction.
“I think that’s wonderful,” Holman said. “We were very concerned.”
The new project scope hasn’t been approved by the Federal Highways Administration, which is helping fund the project, but the paperwork to do so will be submitted soon, Beck said. He expects it to take about two months to get federal approval
It wasn’t just because of public opposition that DOT ditched the new extension road, Beck said. The impact the road would have on wetlands and the cost of building and maintaining a road on what is essentially a permafrost bog also was a factor, he said.
“It had quite a bit of an impact to wetlands,” Beck said.
DOT is working to revise the project’s scope to focus on upgrades to the existing roads and intersections rather than building a new road, Beck said. Some of the alternatives DOT is considering include a three-lane roundabout at the Steese-Johansen intersection and a “fly-over,” an elevated roadway that would transport vehicles on the Johansen over the Steese Highway to make it easier to turn left. DOT also is studying the best way to make the intersection safe for bicyclists and pedestrians, Beck said.
Construction is not expected to begin until summer 2017 at the earliest.