F-35s arrive at Eielson

Two new F-35 fighter jets taxi along Eielson Air Force Base's front flight line Tuesday afternoon, April 21, 2020, after traveling from Fort Worth in Texas earlier that day.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough last month accepted a federal grant that will allow it to take its next steps in looking at future development related to a bump in the borough’s population associated with the arrival of two F-35 squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base.

Over the past several years, the borough has received two other grants from the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Activity to conduct the Eielson Air Force Base Regional Growth Plan and the Salcha-Badger Road Sub-Area Plan. The plans involved looking at various aspects of the borough infrastructure — from land-use and zoning to education and public safety — in order to form recommendations for the borough on how it can best support the extra residents who will arrive along with the 54 F-35 combat aircraft by the end of 2021. According to the Air Force, the borough’s population will increase by an estimated 5,600, including airmen, other staff, and their dependents.

Following those two plans, the borough recently received a $525,000 grant from the Office of Economic Activity in order to complete a land suitability analysis and updates to both the comprehensive road plan and the comprehensive recreational trails plan. According to a borough ordinance dated June 10, these three projects were listed as recommendations in both the Eielson Air Force Base Regional Growth Plan and the Salcha-Badger Road Sub-Area Plan.

Borough Mayor Bryce Ward said the lands analysis will involve looking at all land-use boroughwide and — through analyzing physical attributes, like terrain and topography — assessing and identifying which pieces of land are more appropriate for development and which are less suitable.

Ward said the borough already uses a land suitability program and that this project is mostly “retuning the numbers and updating the formulas.”

The road and trails plans are both being updated. A borough document states “an update is necessary to incorporate the Salcha-Badger Area where most of the population growth is expected.”

Ward said the update of these two plans will incorporate an extensive public engagement and outreach process.

“It’s not limited to the North Pole-Salcha area. It’s a boroughwide perspective,” Ward said. “The last time the roads plan was updated was in 1990.”

Ward explained that an update to the plan is a critical component of the expansion and development that’s taking place, not least because it identifies the need for connecting roads between subdivisions. A borough document states that the plan will establish a “road hierarchy” that will be used to “channel traffic from local roads to collector and arterial roadways while maximizing safety, minimizing conflicts, and facilitating development opportunities.”

As a real-world example of the direct impact of the roads plan, Ward pointed out that the Johansen Expressway was first envisioned as part of a comprehensive road plan developed in the 1970s.

Likewise, the trails plan is particularly important for a town like Fairbanks, where, Ward explained, recreation is a big revenue driver.

“Recreational opportunities in our community are actually one of the biggest bangs for our buck that we have,” he said.

One of the key elements of updating the trails plan, Ward said, is ensuring accessibility to public trails and working with developers to ensure rights of way are uncompromised.

While federal funding is covering the vast majority of the budget for these projects, the grant required a 10% match from the borough of roughly $58,000. According to Ward, the work must be completed within 18 months and will start this fall. He said the plan is to be finished by the fall of 2021.

The borough will be holding various communities meetings, during which residents will have an opportunity to express their input on the projects. The dates and locations of those meetings have not yet been announced.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.