Getting a jump on the future

Planners expect another 7,000 people in Juneau by 2020. They're trying to prevent trafic woes that could come with them

Posted: Sunday, June 04, 2000

In 2020, Egan Drive will be so clogged at rush hour commuters will spend 45 minutes driving from the Federal Building to their Mendenhall Valley homes.

Or in 20 years, Juneau mass transit will be so efficient one-quarter of all Juneau residents will be riding it to work.

The future is being decided today. For the past two years, the city of Juneau and the state of Alaska have been working with consultants and local citizens to develop a 20-year plan for the future of transportation in the capital city. More than just examining roads and bridges, planners have been looking at where people will live, what their neighborhoods will be like and how they will get around in the community.

``We're trying to stay ahead of the crashing wave,'' said Heather Marlow, a planner with the Juneau Community Development Department. ``You see gridlocks down south, and we're trying to get ahead of the 7,000 people we're expecting over the next 20 years.''

The area-wide plan will help engineers, planners and officials with the city and with the state Department of Transportation work together, Marlow said. It will help them understand what people in Juneau want, and will let the public know what to expect from those agencies.

Juneau has problems now that will only get worse, said Marshal Kendziorek, a Juneau Planning Commission member working on the plan.

For instance, the Douglas Bridge is a dangerous place for bicyclists, he said. On weekdays, commuters flood some downtown neighborhoods with cars, leaving residents unable to park near their own homes.

Kendziorek said the area-wide transportation plan will not just address looming problems. It will also be a vision of an idyllic Juneau, with the kinds of neighborhoods and downtown areas, walkways and bike paths, services and amenities citizens would like to see.

In late April about 150 Juneau residents responded to a city-wide invitation to work on the Transportation Vision Plan, one component of the area-wide transportation plan. Transit and bicycling advocates, city and state officials, business people, neighborhood representatives and even children participated in a four-day planning session.

Sponsored by the city, the sessions were directed by a team of planning specialists from the nonprofit group Walkable Communities, based in Orlando, Fla. The consultants were enlisted for their expertise in pedestrian-friendly traffic planning and to help residents craft a vision for Juneau's future.

Group team leader Dan Burden and his colleagues presented success stories from other towns, traffic-calming strategies and current research on community development. A slide presentation of cities across the country illustrated scores of problems -- and solutions.

For example, Burden showed before-and-after slides of intersections where roundabouts, or traffic circles, have successfully replaced traffic signals, increasing capacity and decreasing crashes.

Burden suggested that roundabouts at both ends of the Douglas Bridge could improve those intersections for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

A couple slides showed two streets just a block apart, with comparable homes lining each street. A traffic roundabout on one street had reduced traffic speeds by 18 to 20 mph. Burden said the homes there were worth $10,000 to $15,000 more than those just a block away.

``Home-buyers are looking for low speeds, low noise and low volume of traffic,'' he said.

Other slides showed how trees, medians, roundabouts, pathways and street designs profoundly affect traffic flow and community well-being.

``Wide streets encourage speeding,'' he said. ``Trees cut speeds.''

Trees give the impression of a narrower street, he said, and motorists will drive 35 mph on a residential street with no trees, and 20 mph on a comparable street with trees.

Another part of the presentation showed where parking fees for commuters were subsidizing a community's entire bus system -- riders paid nothing.

One town tore out a downtown parking lot and built a park -- and although parking was reduced, businesses were revitalized because the area was much more attractive, Burden said.

One of Burden's three associates was Danny Pleasant, a transportation planner for the city of Orlando. He said a successful bus system needs to be competitive with auto travel. That means waiting no more than 15 minutes for a bus that quickly travels through its route.

``Not a ride all over creation,'' he said.

Pleasant said there are four F's to mass transit: Frequent, Fast, Friendly and Fun.

And Juneau's system is neither frequent nor fast.

``You'd have to be desperate here to use the bus system,'' he said. ``Successful mass transit has to do with more than vehicles. It's about benches, shelters and amenities like bike racks on the buses.''

Burden and his colleagues presented a variety of alternative ideas, and encouraged residents to express their own ideas.

At the opening night's presentation, Burden asked participants to note the five qualities they value most about living in Juneau.

Despite differences, the casual poll showed Juneau residents share common priorities. They want a town that is friendly, family-oriented, safe, secure and maintains the natural beauty of Southeast Alaska.

Burden asked participants to incorporate those values into their designs. He encouraged the citizen planners to use their imaginations as well as their practical judgment.

``Every citizen is a designer, and needs to work from their heart, with common sense,'' Burden said.

Marlow, the city planner, said some people didn't like the soft, touchy-feely approach and wanted the public guided with more technical expertise. That will come later, she said.

``A vision is where you want to be and then you start building under that. Not the reverse,'' she said.

Burden said broad themes emerged around several key issues.

The first is creating a pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly community that de-emphasizes cars. A key element of that is high density development that blends businesses and residences, as opposed to conventional sprawling subdivisions.

``People want walking-scale villages,'' Burden said.

About 60 people took part in an afternoon design workshop culminating in a presentation of ideas.

Specific ideas included building second and third stories on the two Mendenhall Valley malls for homes, creating an attractive center for the Lemon Creek area, and developing year-round housing at Eaglecrest Ski Area -- for a self-sustaining neighborhood that could merit regular services such as busing.

The second issue is improved public transit that is frequent and convenient. A monorail, light rail and improved bus system were among the specific suggestions.

Burden's team recommended an improved bus system over light rail. Several advantages were cited, cost being a main one. Light rail averages about $45 million a mile to install, more than 10 times what comparable bus systems cost. Buses are flexible, routes can change and there are no overhead wires.

``We try to show that any good rubber tire transit system could be more efficient and effective, and much, much cheaper,'' he said.

As he was working on the final report in Florida, he was able to research another option, which he has added to the final report.

``There's a new idea, to use a narrow-gauge railroad. It's never been built in America yet, and Juneau is probably the perfect community to try it out,'' he said.

The system is being tested now in Orlando, and he said the cost is $1 to $2 million a mile. Tracks can be installed by two workers out of the back of a large pickup truck, he said. In some models, efficient lawn mower-size gas or diesel engines charge banks of batteries, which in turn power the cars' electric motors.

Andrea Ronkin came with Burden specifically to work with children on Juneau's plan. Burden said children can be insightful designers, free from the prejudices and preconceived notions that can limit adult thinking.

Kids' designs included an enhanced Marine Park area with a community garden and an aquarium. Thomas Sorensen, 10, had some ideas for improvements in the Sunny Drive and Lemon Creek area.

``I don't like that you can't get across Egan Drive except at the intersection. It's dangerous,'' Sorensen said. ``So I made an overpass at Sunny Drive -- or an underpass.''

What Juneau looks like in the future depends on the appearance of things like sidewalks, crosswalks, parking lots, bike racks and streetlights. Participants in one session were shown examples and asked to chose what looked best, what could withstand the climate and what would fit in with the character of Juneau.

Some preferences were unanimous -- sidewalks separated from roads by a strip of vegetation, and landscaped neighborhood paths for cyclists and pedestrians. Conventional large surface parking lots were rejected in favor of small lots hidden from view.

That information has already been useful, said Cheryl Easterwood, the city's director of Community Development. She said at a recent Planning Commission meeting, she brought up the findings of the visual preference survey on a discussion about the layout and appearance of a new city parking lot.

Burden's final version of the Transportation Vision Plan was delivered to the city late last week. It details the work of citizen planners as well as the recommendations of the consultants. It offers suggestions to improve the current bus system and ways make hazardous intersections and streets safer and more efficient. It provides information on alternative transit and the benefits of bike lanes, and offers a sample project to enhance downtown Douglas.

The city spent about $12,000 for Burden's four-day sessions and the Transportation Vision Plan. Copies are available through the Community Development Department, located in the Marine View Building on South Franklin Street. Easterwood said there may be a nominal charge to cover the costs of printing the 100-page report.

The Transportation Vision Plan will become one aspect of the area-wide transportation plan, said Juneau Assembly member Ken Koelsch. Koelsch, who serves as the chairman of the Transportation Steering Committee, said the area-wide plan may be ready as early as September.

Marlow said the vision gives planners a baseline to work from, a good, general sense for what residents want.

David Hawes, a planner for the Department of Transportation and a member of the steering committee, shared a similar view.

``This is a starting point,'' Hawes said. ``This is good food for thought.''

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