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Assembly members push back on DOT plans for Auke Bay

40 mph speed limit seen by some as too fast

Posted: September 10, 2012 - 9:42pm  |  Updated: September 11, 2012 - 12:01am

An Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities presentation on the Auke Bay Corridor project to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole Monday evening met with dissatisfaction from many Assemblymembers, as the department’s plans for the speed limit through the area were questioned.

The DOT&PF plans to rebuild the curve in the road between Auke Lake and Auke Bay Harbor to be comfortable for 40 miles per hour driving speed, while changing speed limit and warning signs posted at 35 mph to reflect the standing “speed order” of 40 mph for that section of road.

“We’re not changing the speed limit, exactly. We’re designing to the current speed order,” explained DOT&PF project manager Greg Lockwood. “We’re not changing any speed orders. We’re just designing the road to be safe.”

But Assemblymembers said they have received public feedback asking that the speed limit not be posted at 40 mph. Some, according to Assemblymember Jesse Kiehl, have even suggested the speed limit for the whole area should be dropped down to as low as 20 mph.

“I’ve traded emails with three companies that run great big buses through here,” said Kiehl. “One said, ‘Don’t change the speed limits at all,’ and the other two said, ‘Drop ‘em to 20 all the way through there. We see a lot more pedestrians. … That’s our concern.’ It surprised me.”

Assemblymember Carlton Smith, who said he lived in Auke Bay for about a year, agreed.

“I just don’t see the logic of doing anything other than 20 miles an hour through that entire area,” Smith said.

Assemblymember Karen Crane repeatedly brought up an Alaska statute requiring the DOT&PF to consult with municipalities about proposed speed limit changes.

“In determining safe speed limits and safe speed zones within a municipality, the department shall consult with that municipality,” reads AS 19.10.72 (b), which was also cited in an email from Friends of Auke Bay organizer Karla Hart that was included in a packet available at the meeting. “The department shall provide notice and opportunity for a hearing before establishing a speed limit or speed zone other than as recommended by a municipality, community council or other community organization.”

“I do not see that consultation has taken place,” said Crane.

Crane rejected a suggestion by David Epstein, the DOT&PF’s traffic and safety engineer for the Southeast Region, that discussion over the speed limit wait until after the completion of the project, which is expected to be sometime in 2014.

“I think we should wait until after the project is completed, because the roundabout is going to significantly impact the speed of Glacier Highway within its area of influence,” said Epstein, referring to a roundabout planned to be built at the intersection of Glacier Highway and Back Loop Road, up the hill from DeHart’s Auke Bay Store, as part of the Auke Bay Corridor project.

“From what I’ve heard, I don’t think that they will be satisfied with looking at this issue after the road is built,” Crane responded.

Epstein, Lockwood and other DOT&PF officials at the meeting repeatedly stressed the importance of “balance” between the interests of having a pedestrian-friendly community in Auke Bay and maintaining the area as a “through corridor,” in Lockwood’s words.

“I don’t feel like we’re making compromises on safety,” Lockwood told the committee. “We are balancing, but we are not making compromises on safety. We’re improving safety.”

Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker said he believes the speed limit is the only concern that the public has with the project.

“I gather from the public that they’re concerned about the amount of noise and the safety issues with the increased traffic speed in that area,” said Wanamaker. “But the design has acceptance.”

Kiehl took a different view. He expressed concern that the road is being designed for a higher speed.

“If you design to a standard where it’s safe to go a lot faster, it doesn’t matter what signs you have up there,” said Kiehl. “Your speed study’s going to show you people going a lot faster than that.”

Al Clough, Southeast Region director for DOT&PF, warned that if the design of the road is significantly altered, it could endanger the nearly $12 million in federal funds going to finance the improvements due to delays and the construction schedule would go “out the window.”

“If we’re going to redesign the project … I cannot guarantee that we’ll just be able to suspend it and then restart it in 12 months’ time,” Clough said.

The roundabout and Back Loop improvements, a $5 million project, is being funded with state money.

Assemblymember Johan Dybdahl, participating by telephone, proposed that staff work to submit a request for consultation on the speed limit to the DOT&PF.

“I would like to make it a formal request,” Crane agreed.

While Deputy Mayor David G. Stone, chairman of the committee, said he was unclear that there was consensus on how a potential resolution should read or what it would include, he remarked, “I think there is an overwhelming consensus of the body that the speed may be inappropriate and maybe could be reduced, and I assume DOT is getting that message.”

“I think the expectation should not be that we have a resolution at our next meeting,” said Mayor Bruce Botelho. “It probably will need another worksession. We haven’t heard from staff.”

There was no objection to Botelho’s suggestion.

After a brief pause in proceedings, the Committee of the Whole unanimously approved a resolution changing the preferred site plan for the Whale Project, a bronze whale sculpture proposed as a piece of public art for the city, from Marine Park to the site of the former Public Works Department building under the Juneau-Douglas Bridge.

The committee also met in executive session to discuss annexation. Botelho said executive session was warranted due to the discussion of legal strategy associated with the subject.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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