Work begins on a new $30 million overpass at Mile 359 of the Richardson Highway between Fairbanks and North Pole next year, with the bulk of construction happening in 2023. The borough Planning Commission approved the project Tuesday.
Once complete, the highway will be elevated above a set of railroad tracks.
“The major improvement from the project is from a safety perspective,” said Don Galligan, Fairbanks North Star Borough transportation planner. “By elevating the roadway above the railroad, one of the biggest issues that it addresses is you no longer have school buses and trucks having to pull off to that side and and then stop and then proceed across the rails and try to merge back into traffic.”
The commission voted 8-1 on the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities project. The no vote came from Mike Kenna, who did not voice objections at the meeting and declined to comment. The vote serves as local approval of the project, according to Galligan.
In a report to the Planning Commission, Galligan wrote that “though the instance of crashes is relatively low at this location, potential severity of these crashes is high due to highway speeds.”
The overpass will replace a divided, four lane highway that follows a slight S-curve and enters a straight section before crossing tracks owned by the Alaska Railroad Corp. About a mile of highway will be reconstructed to create a twin single-span grade separation between the Richardson Highway and the railroad tracks.
The new stretch of elevated road will have four 12-foot lanes, two in each travel direction with 10-foot outside shoulders, 4-foot inside shoulders and a 36-foot-wide median, according to the report to the Planning Commission.
There will be retaining walls, improvements to ditches, better drainage, new lighting, relocated power lines and an undercrossing for Fort Wainwright troops.
The area is prone to ice fog in the winter from cooling ponds of the Fort Wainwright power plant and elevating the road along with added lighting should help mitigate the ice fog, according to the report.
Planning Commission Chairman John Perreault said the project offers an added bonus beyond safety.
“One of the best things it does,” he said, “beyond the safety aspect of the overcrossing, is that it builds a critical section of bike and pedestrian path.”
The pathway, which will parallel the overpass on the north side, is the final segment that will link Fairbanks and North Pole via Badger Road for people on foot and on two wheels.
Currently, the Richardson Highway has no bicycle/pedestrian paths between Fairbanks and North Pole.
Alaska Administrative Code restricts pedestrian use of the highway except in an emergency, according to Galligan, but pedestrians use the highway shoulders anyway.
“That whole area will look a lot different in two to three years,” Perreault said, referring to this project coupled with other work on the nearby Steese Expressway, including a pending project where the Steese meets Airport Way in front of the main entrance to Fort Wainwright. That project also involves a bike path.
“It should be a series of very big improvements,” Perreault said.
An online public open house on the Richardson Highway project ran from Dec. 19, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019, and a stakeholder meeting was held on Jan. 24, 2019.
The project area is in a busy section of road with average daily traffic estimated at 26,000 vehicles. Traffic volumes are projected to grow to 35,900 vehicles by 2045.
Borough Mayor Bryce Ward said he expressed concerns to the DOT around right-of-way issues that the agency addressed.
“I am supportive of the Planning Commission’s decision to support the project and look forward to these needed safety improvements,” he wrote in a text message.
Ward commutes to work in downtown Fairbanks from the city of North Pole.
“I am also grateful for the pedestrian connection from Badger to the Steese,” he said. “This will make a great connection for pedestrians and bicyclists between Fairbanks and North Pole.”