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The Juneau Assembly decided Monday to ask the state to develop plans and construct interchanges on Egan Drive, but its discussion about the city's Area Wide Transportation Plan isn't over.
The city plan sets a framework for local projects for the next 20 years and provides suggestions to the state about its transportation plans for Juneau. Over the past few weeks, discussion has centered on whether to replace stoplights on Egan Drive between downtown and the Mendenhall Valley with interchanges or whether to place a greater emphasis on transportation alternatives such as buses, bikes and carpooling.
The Assembly voted 8-1 to develop plans and construct interchanges on Egan Drive.
Assembly member Don Etheridge said he drives Egan several times each day. Many people can't wait for a bus, he said.
"If we can have a free-flow movement, it will make a major difference in people's lives," he said.
Assembly member Frankie Pillifant was the sole no vote. At her request, the Assembly added language calling for the city and the state to jointly develop more detailed information about the interchanges "so everyone will understand the project better and make the best choice." The community hasn't reached consensus on the intersections, she said.
"This transportation plan needs to continue to be a living, breathing document," she said.
The Assembly voted to move up the priority list a proposal for a Gastineau Channel coastal trail that would parallel Egan Drive. Assembly member Marc Wheeler requested the change, saying mitigation is needed.
"If I'm going to vote for the interchanges, I want to get something for it. This is our plan, not DOT's plan," he said.
After more than three hours of debate and public comment about the plan, the Assembly decided to continue the discussion after a Finance Committee meeting Wednesday night.
Assembly member Ken Koelsch, chairman of the city's Transportation Steering Committee, said discussion Wednesday likely will focus on a second crossing over Gastineau Channel and ways to reduce demand for driver-only trips.
Mayor Sally Smith said the Assembly was able to find middle ground.
"It was real tough to wade through when both sides were well thought-out and well-founded," she said. "The compromises ... benefit both viewpoints."
Thirty people testified at the meeting. Chris Morrow, DOT Southeast preliminary design and environmental chief, asked the Assembly to clarify its intent in regard to the interchanges. Using the words "design and construct" gives the department more information about the need to restore Egan Drive to a free-flow road, he said.
No matter what is in the transportation plan, the state will continue to gather community input, he said.
"It doesn't mean we won't be talking to the public on every project," he said.
According to the department, there were 50 accidents at the Mendenhall Loop, Vanderbilt Hill Road, McNugget and Salmon Creek intersections with Egan Drive between 1990 and 1999. Between 36 percent and 39 percent were accidents that caused injuries, Morrow said. A free-flow expressway with interchanges would improve safety, he said.
Jim Scholz, representing several Juneau trucking companies, spoke in favor of the interchanges.
"We think it is a no-brainer," he said. "If you're waiting to see a fatality, stoplights is where they happen. It's not speed that kills, it is trying to stop at an intersection on icy roads."
Concerned citizen Michael Hekkers asked the Assembly to try transportation alternatives before building interchanges. More efficient public transit, new bike and pedestrian lanes and light rail can improve safety and are more appropriate to Juneau, he said.
Sunny Point resident Jim King asked the Assembly to keep the discussion going.
"In listening tonight, I haven't heard anybody I'd look in the eye at and say 'you're wrong.' This is the neatest debate the community has been in for a long time. My recommendation is don't cut it off," he said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.
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