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Alaska Railroad takes wrong track on Chena River trail access

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Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2013 12:02 am

The Alaska Railroad’s refusal to make room for a pedestrian and bike trail on undeveloped land across the Chena River from the Curling Club and the Carlson Center is unacceptable, Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins says.

He’s right.

Hopkins says he is glad the railroad approved a permit that allows a pedestrian and bike trail on two unconnected sections of the north bank between the power plant and Peger Road, but there is no reason for a nearly half-mile gap between them.

“The railroad board should have made a commitment to putting the full walk along the north bank,” said Hopkins. He said the land is not developed and “this is a chance to do it right.”

Two unconnected sections of trail do not meet the long-established community goal of getting a trail along the river. Pedestrian bridges at two spots would make it easy to cross the river, but a continuous trail is the only option that makes sense.

The railroad should change its permit or issue a new one to allow the trail on the edge of its undeveloped property.

Fairbanks has two members on the railroad board — John Binkley and Jon Cook — who need to take on this task.

Railroad real estate officials have long had a full head of steam against public access along the riverfront.

The land in question is the wooded property across from near the baseball fields back of the Curling Club down to near Pioneer Park.

The railroad says there is no room on the undeveloped property for a small trail on the river’s edge and that a public trail would devalue the property and harm future commercial prospects.

That’s the pat answer we always get from the Anchorage office.

In a story in the News-Miner Friday, a railroad vice president said a trail would make the land “undesirable.” He also said the trail would be “who knows how wide.”

To save the vice president the trouble of looking at the plans, the trail would be eight feet wide.

What the railroad fails to acknowledge is that there are ways to protect the value of the property, allow access for a riverfront trail and improve the overall potential of the area and its commercial appeal.

In years past there was talk by railroad executives that condos could be built on that railroad property, but a public trail along the river would make them worth less, they said.

They look at this as if public access is a bad thing because it means allowing riffraff to pass by.

What these public officials fail to realize is that allowing public access in front of that stretch would open up the entire corridor to the tenants of the railroad property, which would be a plus, whether the tenants are commercial or residential.

 We need to look at how other communities have used waterfront access to their advantage, creating new attractions to generate business and popular support.

The railroad needs to take a more creative and cooperative approach.

It is not being asked to fund the trail work, merely to make allowance for establishing one in the future.

To some extent, this project would make up for the bad planning and lack of cooperation that marked the recent Phillips Field Road improvement project.

The result of that improvement project was to make that road more dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists.

While there is a wide shoulder inviting bicyclists on the west end of the road and signs encouraging motorists to share the road, the shoulder on the east end of the road drops down to 5 inches or less.

The railroad and the Department of Transportation, which are both state agencies, failed to produce an adequate plan on Phillips Field Road.

In this case the railroad has the opportunity to develop a reasonable and safe plan that allows for future commercial development of railroad property, public access along the river and new opportunities for the community.

Dermot Cole will be out of the office for the next few weeks. Write to him at or leave a message at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter at @FDNMdermot.

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