DOT launches differential speed section of Seward Highway

Starting Monday, the right lane on a section of the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Kenai will legally become the slow lane.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is launching a project to study how lowering the speed limit in the just right lane of a highway impacts congestion and facilitates passing on the left. The project will reduce the speed limit in the right lane on a section of the Seward Highway between the Hope Junction and the top of Turnagain Pass.

That way, drivers in the left lane can pass drivers in the right lane more easily, avoiding conflict when they are both going relatively fast and have to merge when the passing lane ends.

Starting Monday, the speed limit on the section of the Seward Highway from Mile 60–65 will be 55 in the right lane and 65 in the left lane.

“With a lower posted speed limit in the right (slow) lane, passing speeds can be reduced while allowing more vehicles to pass within designated passing lanes,” stated a DOT press release issued Friday.

The state intentionally designed the project for situations just such as the upcoming weekend — with the warm July weather, many tourists and an opening personal use dipnet fishery on the Kenai River, the traffic headed for the Kenai Peninsula will swell to peaks of 20,000 vehicles on some days in July. The Seward Highway is a known high-traffic area — the state has lengthened and added passing lanes from Anchorage south toward the Kenai Peninsula in recent years.

The project is targeted at both controlling congestion and improving safety, said Scott Thomas, the Central Region traffic engineer for DOT.

DOT has been working on the project for more than two years, which is primarily funded through the Federal Highway Administration, he said. DOT Planners met with the Alaska State Troopers and trucking associations, who regularly drive the highway to and from Anchorage, to work out how to solve the problem without impacting any one group too heavily, he said.

Starting a project on the road right away could have been expensive, though, so to save costs, the state went through a virtual driving simulator first. Thomas said the planners worked with programmers from the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, to design a simulation that mimics the conditions on the Turnagain Pass road.

“They can make it look like the passing lanes and put real drivers behind the wheel of a mini truck,” Thomas said. “It’s drivers of different ages, different skill levels.”

Currently, DOT plans to run the test throughout July, but has no plans to run into August. Thomas said the department will gather data about traffic speeds and the distance between cars throughout the month and analyze it. If it’s successful, the state may look at other areas to implement similar programs, he said.

Nothing will change for the troopers — they enforce the speed limits DOT sets, and their instruments will behave the same, said Megan Peters, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety.

“If we’re around, we do our best to contact (speeding drivers) and have them respond to our tickets that we give them,” Peters said. “It’s going to be no different.”

Much of the good behavior will rely on drivers in the first place, Thomas said.

Following the posted speed limits, allowing faster drivers to pass when going uphill and being cognizant of where other drivers are will help promote safety, he said. He illustrated a common situation: someone going slowly up a hill toward Kenai with a line of four or five vehicles behind them.

The simplest solution: just put on the turning signal and pull over into the slow lane.

“Then I’d let up on the gas, and then people start rolling by you, and you can tell they’re not very upset,” Thomas said. It takes a conscious decision to let up on the gas.”

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