Imagine driving from the Mendenhall Valley to downtown Juneau without stopping. On and off ramps would replace traffic lights. Pedestrians and bicycles would have better access.
Turning Juneau's main thoroughfare into a "free-flow" expressway is one component of Juneau's draft Area Wide Transportation Plan, prepared by a city committee. The Juneau Assembly is scheduled to consider the document, which sets a framework for local transportation projects over the next 20 years, at a meeting tonight. Egan Drive, a second crossing over Gastineau Channel, ways to reduce demand for driver-only trips and the possibility of a light rail or other new public transit system are expected to be part of the discussion.
During a work session last week, Assembly members disagreed on whether to ask state officials to "design" or "design and construct" Egan Drive interchanges. Another focus is how alternative methods of travel such as mass transit, buses and bicycles fit into the plan.
Assembly member and Transportation Steering Committee Chairman Ken Koelsch said new interchanges will improve safety on Egan Drive. Intersections at Sunny Point and 10th Street need work now, he said.
"What I want to see come out of this is that we don't discount how important the automobile is to many, many commuters in the community," he said. "I think all of us like the freedom and efficiency the automobile gives us."
Juneau Mayor Sally Smith said Egan Drive improvements and promoting alternative modes of travel are not mutually exclusive.
"We have to look at whether we believe it is important to be decisive now ... whether or not we want to wait and see. My personal fear with 'wait and see' is that it is hard to play catch-up," she said.
Roger Allington, a Juneau Planning Commission member and cochairman of the Transportation Steering Committee, said the public needs to be involved when the state Department of Transportation designs the new interchanges.
Some efforts to promote travel alternatives already are in place in Juneau. Staggered work hours for federal employees and increases in bus service are examples, he said.
"It shouldn't be overlooked," he said. "While they can help, it won't eliminate the need for improvements to Egan Drive."
The transportation plan has been under development for three years. After a public meeting in May, more than 100 community members asked that the city investigate a fixed-guideway transit system such as light rail and add it into the document.
If the words "and construct" are added to language dealing with the Egan Drive interchanges, the opportunity to use the funding in some other way would be lost, said Bill Leighty, an advocate for fixed-guideway transit.
"It gives DOT carte blanche to proceed with the interchanges," he said.
Frank Guzzo, a representative from Seimens Transportation Systems, is scheduled to visit Juneau on July 26 for meetings with the city and the public about light rail and other fixed-guideway systems.
The transportation plan has heightened dialogue about Juneau's transportation future, Assembly and Transportation Steering Committee member Frankie Pillifant said. Juneau residents have a choice in what happens, she said.
"I firmly believe in the citizen process and the direction that we came to through the work of developing informed consent," she said.
An environmental impact statement for a second crossing over Gastineau Channel was added to city's priority list after last week's meeting. The real controversy will come in determining what the crossing will look like and where it will go, Smith said.
The plan will be updated within five years of adoption. Koelsch said a new city transportation planner - a position funded during this spring's budget cycle - will help implement recommendations.
Smith said input is welcome at any time.
"Regardless of the final vote, that doesn't mean the effort has ended. The vote on this is the middle of the process," she said.
The meeting starts at 7 tonight at Assembly chambers in city hall downtown.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.