Tourists, trucks clog Denali highway

Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000

DENALI NATIONAL PARK -- A seasonal city springs up each summer on the Parks Highway at the entrance to Denali National Park. Now, planners are trying to figure out the best way to route traffic through the commercial tourism district that's come to be known as ``Glitter Gulch.''

The main highway linking Anchorage and Fairbanks passes right through the middle of the district. Big rigs hauling drilling equipment north thunder past Florida retirees seeking a pullout for their 40-foot motor homes. Pedestrians seeking reindeer sausage and souvenirs dodge both.

Anywhere else, traffic would be rerouted around the area. But the Alaska Range's 5,000-foot peaks restrict the road to the narrow canyon cut by the Nenana River. Businesses hem in the highway and cling to cliffs.

``It's so congested,'' Jim Young, Fairbanks operations manager for trucking firm Lynden Transport told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ``You really should keep your speed down in there.''

Two years ago the state Department of Transportation proposed building frontage roads on either side of the highway to funnel slow-traveling locals and tourists off the highway and let through-traffic zip by.

Local backlash was strong and DOT retreated. The Denali Borough Assembly created a 20-member panel to develop alternatives and three appear to have made the cut: moving the highway about 150 feet east; putting it underground with access roads on top; and a modified version of the frontage road plan.

A final recommendation is expected in mid-September.

The cheapest, simplest proposal - dropping the speed limit a few notches - works for now, but won't in the future given expected growth, said Dave Talerico, owner of the Denali River View Inn and the panel's chairman.

``The popularity of the national park and the growth of the area is going to require a new plan, a better road system,'' he said.

There are complaints about every proposal on the panel's short list, including the modified DOT plan, which would route pedestrians to walkways, tunnels and possibly even a stop sign with a crosswalk.

And no matter how available a walkway or tunnel is, pedestrians will likely continue to scamper across the highway, planners said.

``You have all these little old people trying to cross this three-lane highway with through traffic ripping through there,'' said Mike Crofoot, owner of Denali Crow's Nest. ``It's just not a good scene.''

Despite objections, some feel a reduced speed limit would help. The limit recently dropped to 40 mph and Young believes it could drop even lower -- possibly to 20.

``It is only a mile or two down in there,'' he said. ``You'd still maintain your schedule.''

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