Alaska Railroad land leases could prevent the long-awaited Fish Creek and Coastal Trail bike trail connection

Anchorage residents and politicians are pushing back on a property owner’s attempt to lease a parcel of land near Fish Creek from the Alaska Railroad, a move that will likely block a long-awaited bike path extension project.

The Alaska Railroad Board of Directors is scheduled to make a decision on the lease in the coming weeks. At a meeting of the board’s real estate committee on September 6, more than a dozen Anchorage residents, including two local politicians, urged the railroad board to reject a proposed 95-year lease of about one acre of land to J.L. McCary III And Barbara McCary. Christine McCary and Eric Finseth. From Christy Terry, vice president of real estate for the Alaska Railroad, said 73 others testified that morning against the lease in written comments to the board.

The project, funded 91% to 9% with federal and local dollars, will connect the Fish Creek Trail in the Spenard area to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

So far, during the development of the project, planners have found “minimum impact” – that’s what they say Probably the only viable trail route would be via the railroad lot adjacent to the McCary property.

If the board approves the proposed lease, it is very likely that the Fish Creek Trail Connection project will not be able to move forward, said Aaron Jongenelen, AMATS director of transportation planning, on behalf of the AMATS Policy Committee in an Aug. 25 letter to the railroad board. . AMATS is the municipal and state marina area planning organization.

Board member John Binkley on Wednesday asked J.L. McCary if the purpose of the lease was to stop construction of a portion of the proposed trail.

“The purpose is to maintain the privacy that we have had and hope to continue to have” for years, he replied.

Many Anchorage residents, politicians and local organizations advocating for the trail-connection project say the many public benefits of the widely supported project far outweigh the desire of a private property owner. This group also includes many who live in the trail project area.

However, property owners and other residents in the area of ​​the proposed trail have expressed concerns about potential impacts to their residences and to the Fish Creek mouth that may be caused by a significant increase in bicycle and pedestrian travel.

“As a private property owner, I object to the railroad increasing the burden of the railroad easements on my property,” said resident John Fletcher, testifying in support of McCary’s lease application.

During the committee meeting, state Rep. Zach Fields, D-Anchorage, said the area is home to many working-class residents and children who use bicycles to get around, and there is currently no safe route to access the coastal trail from the north Avenue of Lights.

“If you’re a child, if you’re someone who doesn’t have a car, if you’re someone in a wheelchair, this is absolutely essential transportation. It would be outrageous for the railroad to serve as a proxy for one family’s desire to deny transportation access to thousands of people in Anchorage who They depend on an efficient transportation system.”

Fields and three other Anchorage state legislators — independent Rep. Alice Galvin and Democratic Sens. Elvie Gray Jackson and Luke Jill Tobin — opposed the lease, saying trail connectivity is critical and will provide safe access for pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities. .

Anchorage communities have pushed for the trail connection project for years. Variation of such a route has been present in transportation planning documents since the late 1990s. In 2021, 2022 and 2023, voters approved parks bonds that included money for the project.

Anchorage Assemblyman Daniel Volland told the railroad board that the association at its Sept. 12 meeting will vote on a resolution calling on the board to deny McCary’s lease application.

Volland said the city’s parks and trails attract residents and visitors.

“Imagine all the families in Spenard being able to access the coastal trail, or visitors who go to hotels in Spenard being able to take the Fish Creek Trail and go to the coastal trail. I think it’s in the very public interest to move forward with this project.”

A few people spoke in support of McCary’s lease request. They said the project could choose one of several other potential routes included in the initial designs.

But two of those roads will pass through the mouth of Fish Creek, which is protected by a conservation easement. That means the trail built at the mouth of the river would be limited in scope and could not be paved — and therefore would not meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which represents a major complexity for the project, Jongenelen said. AMTS Transportation Planning Manager.

“It’s difficult — impossible — for us to do that because of the ADA requirements that we have to meet in terms of federal regulations,” he said.

This situation was initially reported last month by Alaska Ground Mine.

Anchorage residents have made it clear they don’t want the trail to impact the estuary, said Taylor Keegan, project manager for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Another route that would avoid the switchback via the piece of railway adjacent to the McCarey property, runs north and requires a bridge over the coastal path. But that road would still run north near the railroad tracks and McCary’s property, and would still cross McCary Lane, which starts at the end of Forest Park Drive and passes through the railroad tracks.

This version of the track would cost about $9 million more on top of the funding allocated for the project, Jongenelen said.

However, Keegan said it will likely take at least a year for the design study report to be completed and the trail to be completed. Project managers expect to publicly release environmental impact documents this fall for various methods, she said. That includes cultural surveys, wetland demarcations, and “exploring whether our path of least impact is actually the least impactful,” she said.

Construction is expected to begin in 2025, according to the latest project update from AMATS.

It’s not clear exactly when the Alaska Railroad board will make a decision on McCarry’s lease request — or what they will choose.

After calling an executive session to discuss potential legal issues, the committee tabled the matter without discussing its merits on Wednesday.

Public comment is scheduled to close on Sept. 21, and the board was initially expected to make the decision a day later, during its Sept. 22 meeting in Fairbanks. However, Board Chairman John Shively said the board needs more time to read public comments, and said it may be better to wait until the next meeting is held in Anchorage. The next meeting is scheduled to be held in Anchorage on November 14.

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