By Jenny Neyman
The idea, advocates say, is a no-brainer — add some high-visibility paint to the shoulder of Bridge Access Road and Warren Ames Memorial Bridge over the Kenai River to make motorists better aware that they’re sharing the space with bicyclists.
“That Warren Ames Bridge is so bad for bikers. What we would love to see happen is just some kind of an orange line drawn along the side of it so motorists are aware they’re sharing the road with pedestrians and bikers. We don’t want to change any traffic patterns, we don’t want to move anything — we just want it more differentiated. Of course, in our mind, it’s just a little paint. How hard could that be?” said Tami Marsters, of Sterling, a member of the Peninsula Change Club that is pursuing the painting project.
The reality, however, is that Bridge Access is a state-maintained road. And when the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is involved, it can sometimes feel like local wishes get tangled in red tape.
“It’s not so easy because dealing with the state takes a long time — that whole chain of command. We knew from the beginning that it was not going to be an easy process,” Marsters said.
The Peninsula Change Club — dedicated to increasing physical activity in the community — and the larger People Promoting Wellness group, with which the club is affiliated, endorse the idea. All the bicyclists the club has spoken to think it’s a great idea. Governmental representatives in the community have responded favorably, as well, she said.
But even if everybody and their brother — and, in this case, their mayor and local DOT representative — agrees it is a great idea doesn’t guarantee swift, or any, action.
“Everybody we talk to says, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, we need to do something there.’ We offered to paint it, we offered to buy the paint — whatever we could do to make it happen, we offered to do it. But I think the whole chain of command with the state just takes a long time,” Marsters said. “My first thought was, ‘I’m just going to go paint it in the middle of the night, but I knew that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Rick Feller, public information officer for DOT, said that there just isn’t a feasible mechanism for local community groups to partner directly with DOT to get a project done. No bake sales for bike paths. No volunteer work parties for painting. No split-the-pot raffles for signs.
“It’s very hard for us to partner up with a volunteer group like that for all the obvious reasons, primarily related to liability and standards and just how we function. I hate to be so hard and fast about that, and it’s not as if we shun the concept, it’s just that it seems no matter how hard you try to make it work, it’s pretty difficult for both sides to make it work,” Feller said.
One of the primary benefits of the federal highway system is its uniformity. On and off ramps work the same in Maine as they do in California, and everywhere in between. Road signs are identical in Alabama and Alaska. The system by which roads projects are planned, approved and funded is also designed to function the same way everywhere in the country.
But with that consistency comes regulation, which can, at times, seem to move slower than an overloaded RV through a construction zone.
Renegade action outside the system — such as painting under the cover of nightfall — is most definitely not encouraged.
“There are sets of laws that would govern a private individual’s defacement of public property, but more important than that is just the common sense of it. No one would want to go out and create an unsafe condition that would put injury and life risk out there on the highway. It would not be a good thing to do and we would have to immediately counter that and put it back in its prior situation,” Feller said.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. The project actually sounds promising, Feller said.
“That has been a subject of local request and could be done, depending upon the
physical parameters of the existing pavement and how much shoulder we have and how well we could fit in such work, but it is something that falls within the realm of reality with regard to the potential for getting that done,” he said.
In this case, it’s a matter of ask and ye shall receive. Peninsula Change Club members started talking with the local ADOT office, which resulted in another meeting with DOT Peninsula District Superintendent Carl High, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, Kenai Parks and Recreation Director Bob Frates, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Keani, and representatives of the club and the People Promoting Wellness group. Marsters said the group hammered out a joint plan to improve bike safety along Bridge Access, with DOT planning to paint the road soon — including a new bike template on the road shoulder — and the city of Kenai springing for signage.
“It was a great meeting. Kudos to all those import people who showed up. They listened to us, the common, grassroots people. That is very encouraging to projects people might have that they want done,” Marsters said. “It seems like we’ve been working on this a lot time. It’s great that everyone has been so receptive to this.”
The club has other long-term projects it would like to pursue. Ideally, the group would like to see the speed limit along Bridge Access lowered from 55 to 45 in the summer.
“Which, of course, would mean everybody would be driving 55 anyway,” she said. “But not 65 like they do now.”
The group also would like to see crosswalks painted at every intersection along the Unity Trail pedestrian and bike path that loops between Kenai and Soldotna along the Kenai Spur Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Joselyn Biloon, ADOT area planner for Kenai and Kodiak region, suggests sending her an email detailing what, specifically, the group would like done. She then can forward the request to ADOT’s Traffic Safety Unit.
“They’re going to look at that part of the road — how does it function, how many cars are there, what’s the speed, what would be the safest and best use for that space. They’re going to look at site distances and other kind of engineering concerns and they can make an assessment if, given the way that road is used — how fast, how often, how much — if that would be a safe thing to do,” Biloon said. “There’s a lot that can be done with signage and with painting but we have standards for the National Highway System which we really can’t bend, so that’s why we have to examine each site so specifically to make sure it is consistent within those guidelines.”
If the assessment regarding a project is favorable, the next step is coming up with funding. In that phase, speaking up is the best thing that can be done to support a project.
“We don’t have an extra pot of money to do those kinds of projects, but what I’ve seen in the past is when citizens get really organized they’re able to utilize city, sate, private and foundation funds — all different kinds of funds to get those projects done,” Biloon said. “The more that local governments, as well as state legislators, hear from the local bicycling and pedestrian community, the better it bodes with the possibilities of future projects.”
Projects vie for funding in the Alaska Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, and the central Kenai Peninsula is by no means the only area with need and desire of pedestrian- and bicycling-related projects.
The Municipality of Anchorage has its own funding mechanism, but the rest of the state is in it together, Biloon said.
“You’re competing against projects in Mat-Su, you’re competing with projects in Kodiak, you’re competing with projects in Y-K (the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta) and Aleutians East and those kinds of things. Some of these smaller communities have bicyclists and they need facilities, too. And I think, as resources get harder to come by, communities are getting smarter and smarter and they’re putting together really competitive projects,” she said. “There are a lot of very savvy communities and user groups out there. If you’re going to say, as a community, ‘Wow, we really need this,’ you make a much stronger case if you have some real data.”
It helps to be able to show how heavily used an area is by pedestrians and bicyclists, or to demonstrate how heavily used an area could be if it were safer and more accessible. Some of that data is a matter of research — looking up accident statistics and listing parks, schools, trails and neighborhoods nearby. Actual usage data, however, is more difficult to come by.
But ADOT can help with that, too. Biloon said there is currently a pilot project under way to test new methods for gathering data on bike and pedestrian usage of state roadways. Vehicle usage has been tracked for years, and now, with growing interest in nonmotorized uses of state roads, the department is investigating new means of accurately quantifying that, as well.
“There are a lot of different models and technologies for capturing this data. We’re trying out different ones to find out what’s most suited to Alaska. If you shine a beam of light and count every time something crosses it you’re going to end up counting some moose and some bicyclists. There’s not a standard weight, there’s not a standard speed, if somebody’s pushing a baby carriage, how’s that counted? There are a lot more variables and it’s hard to capture. We want one to really reveal the data that’s most useful,” Biloon said.
There will be a team on the Kenai Peninsula this summer testing nonmotorized data collection. One area already identified is Homer, which has voiced interest in bike paths and wider road shoulders. Biloon said that, if she gets a request soon, she could possibly send a crew to gather data along Bridge Access in Kenai, as well.
“If we get requests next October we’re not going to be able to assist in data collection. If we get this information in June, it’s possible that I can mobilize our people that are already down there to take a look at how the road and trails systems are being used and what the possible potential future use is going to be,” she said. “Since most communities don’t have the capacity to do that data collection on their own, and it’s quite expensive, it makes a lot of sense to hook into DOT resources when they’re available.”
That sounds good to Marsters, who said she and the Peninsula Change Club plan to contact Biloon immediately.
“The more we can get the information out there, the better,” she said.
The club’s overall goal is to encourage greater physical activity and health by promoting use of existing facilities and encouraging further development along those lines.
“Our noble cause is to increase physical activity in the community using the resources we have with the goal of changing social norms around physical activity and nutrition. That’s a huge, huge, huge goal, but, you know, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re just trying to encourage people to get out there and move, basically. The most important thing we have is our health. Without it we can’t do anything, and we don’t even recognize that until it gets taken away. So I would love for everybody in the whole world to recognize that,” Marsters said.
Biloon and Feller said that there are projects coming soon that will increase bike and pedestrian safety on the central Kenai:
- An extension of the Unity Trail up K-Beach past the intersection with Bridge Access recently got $3 million in funding through the Legislature. The project was originally supposed to extend the path a little under three miles to Cannery Road, but the $1.1 million originally appropriated was only enough to extend the path about a mile to Ketch Street. The additional funds should be enough to complete the extension.
“There are other places where that would not be enough, and other places where that would be slightly more than enough, so it really is site specific,” Biloon said. “It can, on the surface of it, look very straightforward, but once you get into it using these funds it can be quite a bit more difficult, time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. I think $3 million is a realistic amount of funds to complete that project.”
- A traffic light across the Sterling Highway at Birch Street in downtown Soldotna.
“That will be helpful in providing access to (Soldotna Creek Park) to pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s another way to cross the Sterling Highway there and connect the pathways on both sides of the highway,” Feller said.
Construction on that project is slated to begin in spring 2013, finishing up by fall.