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Coastal Trail lovers wary of airport expansion, 4 years after last bid imploded

Ben Anderson
Courtesy: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

An airport planning project that hasn't even officially begun yet nonetheless drew about 100 concerned citizens to an Anchorage hotel on Tuesday in the first of what's bound to be many meetings on a new master plan for Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Representatives from the airport, consulting and engineering firms assisting with the plan, and the Municipality of Anchorage were on hand to answer questions from the public and listen to concerns about the potential impact of new airport facilities and infrastructure.

Anchorage residents have more than just a passive stake in their airport's planning. The community is worried about many things -- potential increases in traffic on city roads that new airport facilities might create, noise pollution, de-icing facilities, even invasive weeds. But potential harm that airport growth could inflict on West Anchorage quality of life -- and the area's parks, trails, swimming holes and panoramic views of Cook Inlet -- seemed particularly worrisome to those who turned out on a sunny, summer night.

Stunted growth

Every 10 years or so, the airport is required to develop a new master plan in order to qualify for federal funding, and Anchorage International hasn't tweaked its grand plan since 2002. Back then, Anchorage International was riding high on a robust economy and the increased air traffic potential that good times bring. The airport expected business to continue to increase at a brisk clip, 2.9 percent annually, from about 250,000 "operations" in 2000 to an expected 337,000 operations by 2011.

That didn't happen. Traffic actually decreased at the airport to about 230,000 annual operations between 2000 and 2008. But economic indicators still pointed to healthy growth and in 2008 officials proposed a mid-decade revision to the Anchorage International plan to accommodate a new north-south runway.

Opposition was swift and fierce. The public joined passenger and cargo airlines opposing the runway plan; airport officials acknowledged defeat and the master plan remained unmodified.

Turns out, forecasting airport business growth is about as precise as predicting Alaska salmon runs. Even the adjusted economic projections were too rosy. Three years after the new runway proposal failed, Anchorage International operations were still contracting: the airport had 40,000 fewer operations in 2011 than it did in 2000.

Now, forecasters hope the airport returns to its turn-of-century business peak sometime in 2022. Maybe. And that's the next time the airport will again revisit its master plan.

Modest growth appears to have curtailed massive expansion projects in the 2012 master plan for Anchorage International. Management says it's focusing on development of the resources and facilities already in place -- and how the airport can leverage what it has to entice airlines and carriers.

"It's more about how to use an existing piece of infrastructure and how to increase the airport's net value to our customers to operate more effectively, competitively and efficiently," airport manager John Parrott said Tuesday. And that might include opening up the underused North Terminal for "non-aeronautical purposes" and making use of dormant facilities at the former Kulis National Guard Base, just south of the airport.

But the airport's biggest goal? Making the 2012 master plan revisions a truly community effort, Parrott said.

"Interestingly enough, the biggest goal for the airport for this master plan is not a piece of infrastructure -- it's to conduct this robust public process." Lessons were learned from the 2008 flameout over that proposed runway. This time around, Parrott said the airport will take public input more seriously -- and earlier in the process -- in an attempt to satisfy as many stakeholders as possible.

'Just Don't Touch My Coastal Trail'

But Parrott's reassurances haven't stopped many people from zeroing in on one idea the airport has floated in the past -- a proposed land swap -- that would give the city land it currently rents from the airport, including the Connors Lake dog park, Little Campbell Lake Park and a municipal snow dump. In exchange, the airport would become landlord to some prime Anchorage real estate, including a couple of small land parcels east of the airport as well as the popular Point Woronzof Park.

But the popular Tony Knowles Coastal Trail -- which connects downtown to Kincaid Park, 11 miles south, via a meandering multi-use recreational trail along Cook Inlet -- runs through Point Woronzof. And that's where the land swap idea dies for many Anchorage residents.

Case in point? Anchorage International again floated the land swap proposal in June, prompting the city's Assembly to defer any decision down the road.

One man at Tuesday night's meeting, speaking to a city representative, succinctly summed up many people's opinion: "Just don’t touch my Coastal Trail."

The airport has in the past committed to maintaining an unbroken Coastal Trail, and Parrott said that the promise still stood. But, he added, the existing Coastal Trail would likely have to be rerouted.

"The idea that the only place the Coastal Trail is allowed to be is where it currently exists is one I struggle with," he said, adding that about two miles of the trail has always been on airport property, anyway.

But advocates want to keep the wooded buffer zone between the airport and the serene trail. Should the airport build another runway somewhere on land acquired in the proposed swap, it's likely those dense woods currently separating runways from trail and waterfront would be thinned out.

It's not just trail lovers who oppose the airport's north-south runway expansion. At the opposite end of Anchorage International, neighborhoods have begun to butt up against airport property as well, folks down there would like to keep their own buffer zones, too.

"Everything we see at airports across the country and the world is that they run out of space," Parrott said. "The city and the airport are growing together. In most cases, the city has grown to the airport boundary."

Neighborhoods in Sand Lake, Turnagain and Spenard are already dealing with those issues.

Other people have other issues, though. One woman said she was in favor of the land swap because she swims in Little Campbell Lake, which would become city property if the deal went through. Still others have suggested building all new facilities for cargo operations across Knik Arm, at Point MacKenzie.

There are no easy answers, and even with all the time afforded the planning process -- due to be complete in December 2013 -- some people will walk away angry.

"I don't know of any decision made in the public arena that pleases everyone," Parrott said. There are different things that people want, depending on their needs or their viewpoints."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com