Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula residents chat with Marcheta Moulton, the small federal programs manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, during an open house Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2016 at Soldotna High School. DOT is hosting public meetings around the state to gather input for a new Alaska Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan.

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula residents chat with Marcheta Moulton, the small federal programs manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, during an open house Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2016 at Soldotna High School. DOT is hosting public meetings around the state to gather input for a new Alaska Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan.

One step at a time: Alaska looks to improve plan for bikes, pedestrians

Between mouthfuls of coffee and cookies, about 20 Kenai Peninsula residents weighed in on improvements they think can be made to the state’s policy and infrastructure when it comes to bikes, pedestrians and more on Wednesday night at Soldotna High School.

They gathered for an open house hosted by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which is looking for input on what to include in the Alaska Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan currently being developed to improve state policies on non-motorized transport. DOT has partnered with DOWL, a consulting firm with offices around the country and in Alaska, and Alta Planning and Design, another Lower 48-based firm.

The previous plan that addressed non-motorized travel left a little to be desired, said Renee Whitesell, the planning lead from DOWL.

“The last statewide bicycle and pedestrian plan was put together in 1995, so it’s a 21-year-old plan,” Whitesell said. “That document was a good policy document and a good start but what it did have was the specific performance measures that means that we can look at it now and go, ‘Yes, we achieved that, we’re still working on that, that didn’t happen.’”

Having a plan that includes performance measures will allow people in the future to see what’s been accomplished and what needs more work, she said.

The effort to breathe new life into the issue and concoct an updated policy document kicked off in late July. Those working on the policy document include a steering committee made up of representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska Federation of Natives, bicycle clubs, Alaska Marine Highway System, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and more. The committee met in September, and public meetings like the one in Soldotna will be held around the state through early 2018 to gather input, Whitesell said.

“The purpose of the plan that we’re putting together is to improve the safety, increase accessibility and promote healthy lifestyles in our communities,” she said. “We’re also seeking to set out a plan that will help the Department of Transportation and other organizations to develop a safe and efficient bicycle and pedestrian network and infrastructure.”

Those working on the project hope to be preparing the plan through the first half of 2018 after completing research on current use, analyzing needs and putting together a recommended statewide bicycle network, according to the project schedule handed out at the open house.

Those in attendance had a lot to offer in the way of wheels and walking. One attendee, Soldotna resident Ed Schmitt, suggested keeping water travel more in mind when creating a document that will inform policies and infrastructure.

“A way I transport all the time is by kayak or pack raft,” Schmitt said. “It doesn’t seem like it would take too much more in the planning process to consider that if we had takeouts or put-ins far more frequently, they would be used a lot with all the rivers.”

Others voiced concerns about not enough consideration given to alternate paths to schools that are just outside of towns like Soldotna, where students could easily walk or bike if not for the lack of lighting and safety measures and the danger that poses during winter. Still others suggested greater consideration for cyclists and pedestrians at intersections, again, especially during winter months.

One participant asked whether projects like the Cooper Landing bypass would be able to take advantage of the master plan in terms of policy directives by the time it gets rolling. Project Manager Marcheta Moulon, the small federal programs manager for DOT, emphasized that it is not within the master plan’s scope to focus on individual state projects. It’s a more forward-thinking document, she said.

“We are looking at this in terms of policy … not set projects,” she said.

Soldotna resident Kate Veh has traveled to different countries including Norway, and said she has been struck by how much more consideration is given to non-motorized transportation outside of the United States.

“They (people in the U.S) don’t put walking and biking first as a mode of viable transportation,” Veh said. “The way we lay out our streets even reflects that. Everything is built around the automobile, and I think we’re going to have to sort of change our mindset. It’s going take a while, but just to think about … developing safe pathways for bikes will draw more people out using those bikes and walking, and it’ll affect the health of the population.”

Veh said putting greater emphasis on cycling, walking and other alternative transport will also be helpful in reducing the amount of gas used in the state. It’s encouraging, she said, to know that her own home is taking the issue seriously and looking into it.

 

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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