By Joseph Robertia
Heidi Hanson, of Soldotna, enjoys feeling the breeze blow through her hair, fresh air filling her lungs, and the natural high that comes from exercising on her bicycle after work and on her days off.
But riding through town is not always such a carefree, beneficial experience, as she found in July.
While on the Unity Trail bike path riding past Save-U-More on Kalifornsky Beach Road, she approached an outlet for vehicles and saw one exiting, so she stopped to let the car pass. She’s learned from experience that it pays to be careful.
“People are in such a hurry to beat traffic that they either don’t look to the right when going to pull out, or if they do see you coming, a lot of times they’ll try to beat you to the path,” she said.
Not wanting to risk being struck, she pulled up on her bike and stopped so that the vehicles exiting could have the right of way. But despite her awareness, the driver didn’t look both ways before pulling out and made a tight turn onto the highway.
“I was sitting at the intersection and he looked to the left, but not to the right where I was. He turned into me and hit my bike. The front end, forks and tire were mangled,” she said.
Hanson was injured, but due to being a defensive biker, she was lucky not to have been hurt worse than she was, she said.
“It was a scary thing. Had it been 6 inches more it would have hit me directly on, but as it was I jumped off. I rolled my knee and ankle and got some road rash, but I was lucky I didn’t get dragged with the bike,” Hanson said.
While this was the first accident Hanson has had, she said close calls are a fairly regular occurrence, due to how much vehicle traffic is in that area, and how few of the drivers seem to be aware of the bike path’s regular use.
“I would say the area from the Duck Inn down to Poppy Lane is the worst part,” she said. “The path is so heavily used in that section by bikers and pedestrians. I ride that path three to five times a week and I also have to stop for cars that aren’t looking. I was almost hit again yesterday,” she said last week.
Hanson said a good start to improving safety in that area would be more signs warning motorists that there is an active path through that area.
Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche concurs with the issue’s importance.
“We want to have as physically active a community as we can,” he said.
Micciche recently formed a Trails, Bike and Pedestrian Safety Committee to address these types of concerns. It is made up of John Czarnezki, Kjell Risung, Regina Daniels, Angie Brennan, Bill Holt, Janet Schmidt and Dan Harbison. Alternates to the committee include Jennifer Tabor, Adam Reimer and JP Bennett.
“The committee will provide the city council with recommendations to improve the trail and park systems in Soldotna, as well as suggestions toward increasing public awareness and improving public safety,” Micciche said.
The committee’s first focus will be to establish a charter of what it aims to accomplish, and while Micciche said this may be revised depending on the scope of what the committee believes can be tackled over the winter, initial suggestions include:
- Create a trail plan that includes connectivity to existing parks, trails, existing trail improvements and future desired trail additions.
- Evaluate bike and pedestrian safety exposures and suggest improvements for crossing, signage and infrastructure that will deliver safe travel and access.
- Identify alternative funding opportunities (grants, private, foundation, etc.) to fund pedestrian trail projects.
- Increase public awareness and education for the public and in classrooms — for example, by sponsoring events such as a bike-to-work day.
- Assemble a prioritized, long-term plan with various objectives designed to improve the recreational opportunities in the Soldotna area, and improve safe access, trail continuity and partnerships with other agencies and municipalities, with no need to limit the possibilities. For example, looking at a recreational footbridge connecting Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus to Soldotna over the Kenai River and underpass connectivity between Tsalteshi Trails and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge trails systems.
- Identify long-term access issues as Soldotna grows, including RV access and a motorized corridor through town, either as it exists today or where it is likely to grow in the future.
- Vet various other issues that must be solved in the city, such as a Birch Street crosswalk, green corridors, trail creation to the east side of town, toward the river and back toward East Redoubt.
- Evaluate existing signage, lighting and trail markings to encourage the safe, year-round use of trails.
The first meeting of this newly formed committee is scheduled for later this month, and while its goals are numerous, Micciche said he thinks they are entirely attainable and will ultimately benefit the permanent residents and summer visitors of Soldotna, whether on foot, bike or in a vehicle.
“The primary goals and objectives of the group include preserving the quality of life we currently enjoy, improving recreational quality in the future and ultimately providing for a healthier and more active Soldotna community,” he said.