Brennan: City streets rattle teeth

By Tom Brennan

Anchorage’s street pavement does a pretty good job of keeping the dust down, but that’s about all. As to providing a smooth driving surface, fuggedaboutit!

Our streets these days remind me of the time my wife and I drove up the Alaska Highway in 1967, when it was 1,200 miles of gravel road. (It’s all paved these days. I was driving an International Travelall and towing a steel-hulled houseboat with wheels and an axle but no springs. Every mile was a bone-jarring, tooth-rattling experience.

We came here to take jobs at The Anchorage Times – and for a great adventure. Those 1,200 miles of bad road helped convince me that I never wanted to go back down that highway. So we have been in Alaska ever since. When we need to go anywhere, we fly – and then fly back.

Anchorage roads in summer are always filled with potholes, cracks, pavement breaks and sudden elevation changes. But this year seems worse than any I remember.

In bygone days hitting one of those potholes might have meant a blown tire if not a dropped transmission. But modern cars and tires are designed to handle such shocks fairly well. Many drivers never see a tire blowout or a dragging transmission cutting a groove in the asphalt.

But motoring across town these days can rattle your teeth just like the old Alaska Highway. City and state repair crews are busy every summer repairing the damage done by freezing, thawing and heavy traffic. And they are out there this year as well.

It’s hard to believe that the repair crews are winning the battle. Perhaps the roads will be patched and smooth by freeze-up, but pardon me if I’m skeptical.

We may just have to wait until snow and ice fill the remaining holes and plows smooth them out. It’s hard to believe that winter driving conditions can be better than summer, but they often are easier on your butt, bones and loose teeth.
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It’s hard not to believe that if the Knik Arm Crossing is built that it will become another construction boondoggle like the grain silos, the big fish plant, the Mat-Su ferry boat and any number of other grand ideas that cost millions and ultimately failed.

If you stand on the far shore of Knik Arm and look across at the head of land on the Anchorage side, one can’t help but think that the two shores are so close that a bridge will certainly be built someday. The question is when and at what cost? (You can’t get to the point on the Anchorage side; it’s Port of Anchorage property.)

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority is enthusiastic about the crossing project and convinced that it can be built and become an economic success. And so are some politicians who have been pushing for it.

KABATA has even begun acquiring property on Government Hill, where the approach tunnel would be buried. The properties – now empty – include a motel and a number of houses. Several other businesses have been flagged for acquisition. (The tunnel would be built using a cut and cover method in which the excavated area would be refilled and planted with trees and shrubbery after the tunnel tube is laid.)

The prospects for enough toll-paying traffic to cover the cost of the crossing in the foreseeable future seem extremely remote. The ability for drivers headed to or from Mat-Su homes to pay a toll rather than tackle the heavy rush-hour traffic on the Glenn Highway seems an unlikely incentive. It won’t be much of a shortcut except for the relatively small number of people living at Point MacKenzie. (Guards at the new state prison, perhaps?)
Building the Knik Arm Crossing has been on the public agenda in Southcentral Alaska for decades. The time to build it will come, but the time is not now – and probably not anytime in the next 10 years or so.

The crossing was one of two Alaska projects unfairly labeled by a congressional wag as “bridges to nowhere.” The slur was an attempt to undercut U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who was widely known for his ability to bring federal money to Alaska. The label stuck.

The other “bridge to nowhere” was a proposal for a bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, which contains the area’s regional airport. It would replace a ferry boat and water taxis that carry incoming and outgoing passengers between Gravina Island and the City of Ketchikan.

Anyone standing on the shore in Ketchikan might well ask why a bridge doesn’t already exist. The two points of land are so close that a top PGA golfer might be able to cross them with a looong driver shot.

As with the Knik Arm Crossing, the question is whether the bridge can be constructed economically. (Building it would also eliminate a colorful mix of a ferry boat and water taxis that can carry you directly to a restaurant or business along the waterfront and provide walking access to the main business district. Ketchikan would lose some of its charm.)

Calling them “bridges to nowhere” was grossly unfair, but there were good reasons to defer both projects until they make economic sense.

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