The McGrath Connector: A Supremely Bad Idea
More than 100 people crammed themselves into the Musher’s Hall on Farmer’s Loop Road Tuesday night, and were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOTPF) proposal to build the McGrath Road Connector. WC will borrow, if he may, DeeDee Hammond’s fine drawing to illustrate the problem.
The idea is to relieve perceived congestion at the intersection of the Johansen Expressway and the Steese Highway by building an alternate road. In fact, the funding for this proposal is in the bond package that’s on the November ballot. How did we get this far without anyone stopping to ask if any part of this lame idea makes sense? Because it doesn’t. With all respect to WC’s high school buddy, DOTPF Northern Region Director Steve Titus, this is a stupid idea.
WC commutes through that intersection and on to Farmer’s Loop Road every day. The traffic isn’t bad except for the period 5:15 – 6:00 PM, when you might have to sit through – gasp – two traffic signal cycles to make it through intersection. The problems are seriously aggravated by the current construction on Illinois Street, which has had the effect of boogering traffic throughout the north side of town. Traffic on the Old Steese Highway, for example, is very substantially increased as a result of the Illinois Street construction. It would make a great deal of sense to wait for that project to be finished before undertaking any road design in the affected area.
But the real problem is that the intersection of the Old Steese and the Johansen Expressway is simply too close to the New Steese. As development has increased along the north and south sides of the Johansen, the problem has worsened. But here’s the thing: putting more traffic at the Old Steese intersection is going to worsen the problem, not improve it. More people lined up for the left turn onto the proposed new road is going to aggravate, not improve, the congestion problem. That’s the first major problem with DOTPF’s proposal. It’s not going to work and will likely be counterproductive.
The second problem involves the soils along the proposed right of way. They are among the very worst in the Fairbanks area. There’s a reason that there is a peat mine at the current end of the road. The soils are organics, mostly peat and ice, for hundreds of feet down. Those same soils underlie the former alignment of Farmer’s Loop Road, the part now called “Old Farmer’s Loop.” There’s a reason the road was realigned back in the 1970s. You can build a road on them, but the roads are very expensive to build and difficult and very expensive to maintain. WC isn’t going very far out on a limb to predict that this would be one of the most expensive roads to maintain in the region. Building a road will alter the thermal profile of the soils, which will cause melting of the volumes of ice in those organics, which will cause differential settlement. It’s been happening for years where McGrath Road meets Farmer’s Loop. And the soils are worse further south, where the new road is proposed to go.
The third problem is that this is a wildlife refuge. Sure, the right of way runs along the edge of the Refuge, but the thing about wildlife is that it doesn’t know about manmade boundaries. That silly wildlife thinks that Mark and Connie Dubay’s beautiful Tail Waggin’ Pond, which is on their private property, is a part of the Refuge. The proposed road would create an artificial, critter-killing barrier between Tail Waggin’ Pond and the rest of the Refuge. The impact would be worsened by the soils. To build its road, DOTPF would have to create a very thick gravel pad on top of the ground, an even higher wall or barrier to the movement of wildlife through the area. If DOTPF built the kind of fence that’s along the Steese Expressway, to keep the silly wildlife off the new road, then we’re moving along the path to having a zoo instead of a Refuge.
There’s a whole raft of incidental problems with DOTPF’s proposal. It seriously disrupts the longstanding dog mushing and cross-country ski trails in the area, hammers the property values of folks living along the proposed right of way, provides another entry point for invasive weeds and may create aufeis problems. Those are real issues, and WC doesn’t mean to minimize them. But the real reasons that the McGrath Road Connector is a stupid idea are that it seriously damages the Creamer’s Wildlife Refuge, creates an expensive, high-maintenance chunk of road and doesn’t address the problem is is supposed to solve. There may be legitimate reasons to damage one of Alaska’s crown jewel wildlife refuges. There may be reasons to build expensive roads on the worst possible soils. But this isn’t one of them. This idea doesn’t fix the traffic problem. It probably makes it worse.
Back to the drawing board, DOTPF. You can do better than this. You can hardly do worse.