Saturday, May 12, 2012

Plan To Widen Lake Otis Parkway In Anchorage Could Gobble Up Homes On The East Side Even Though There's Open Land On The West Side

A plan to widen Lake Otis Pkwy between Northern Lights Blvd and 15th Avenue in Anchorage, Alaska is in the works, but it could gobble up homes located on the east side of Lake Otis even though there is open land on the west side to expand the road.

The project, expected to cost up to $32 million, would widen the road, include separated paths on both sides, and install new lighting and landscaping. The initial $2.5 million is requested in the new capital budget, listed on page 14 of SB160 CS Workdraft (the bill itself is SB160). While the back-up material for the legislative request describes the plan as widening to five lanes, the number of lanes hasn't been decided yet and won't be until a design is done, according to city public works director Ron Thompson. The project could begin as early as 2016.

However, when asked about expanding the right of way, Thompson said "As far as I know it would be mainly on the east side".

Whoops! All stop! Look at the satellite map screenshot posted below. What's on the east side? Homes. What's on the west side? A strip of open land large enough to expand the right of way.

Screenshot of Lake Otis from 20th to 15th; click image for larger version

The section displayed above is currently the most narrow, with only three lanes total. It may not be possible to widen the road to five lanes without condemning the homes. But why is there no talk of acquiring the open land on the west side FIRST?

Here's a screenshot of the satellite map of the section from Northern Lights Blvd to Maple Drive:

Screenshot of Lake Otis from Northern Lights to Maple; click image for larger version

The section displayed above is less critical, being four lanes until you get to 20th Avenue. However, the northbound extreme right lane becomes a right turn only lane onto 20th Avenue eastbound; motorists who change their mind will try to force their way into the left lane before reaching 20th. In addition, left-turners often have to stop in a through lane to wait for an opening to turn. This creates a traffic safety problem; from 2008 to 2010, the city reported six accidents with major injuries, 54 with minor injuries, and 137 with property damage. As recently as October 2011, a drunk driver careened across four lanes, went over a curb, then a fence and a lawn and smashed into a house on Lake Otis, injuring the homeowner. You can see from the screenshot above that there is open land on the west side, so there's no need to condemn the homes on the east side to widen the road to five lanes.

Roger Galliet posted a comment presenting a different idea:

I live near there. Almost all of the problems with this stretch of Lake Otis can be fixed by changing to a 2-lane configuration similar to the new part of Arctic Blvd. This should allow for "proper" turn lanes at intersections. The turns at Maple, E 27th, E 24th, E 20th, and E 16th are all substandard. Since the city snowplow crews find it impossible to properly clear Lake Otis to the curbs, this would give them a place to put the snow - while also allowing pedestrians to use the sidewalks. It might also allow for a decorative, narrow median planter to separate the too-close traffic. All without destroying the homes along the street.

But Galliet's idea won't work; it will intensify the bottlenecking of eastbound Northern Lights that occurs during the evening rush hours. Trying to feed two left turn lanes of Northern Lights traffic into one northbound Lake Otis lane would not work. And there's a reason for two left turn lanes; there's a hell of a lot of traffic. In contrast, there has been no bottlenecking problem on Arctic Blvd.

The Bottom Line: The project is not only necessary, but overdue. However, condemning homes should be the last resort, NOT the first resort, particularly when there's open land available for expansion. And these are the smaller, more affordable single-family homes that will be difficult for their owners to replace, since the local market is more interested in building overamped McMansions or overpriced luxury condos. The threat of condemnation makes the sale of the homes to another private party for a competitive price virtually impossible.

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