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Steese-Jo intersection construction starts next year

A new 'Diverging Diamond' Interchange with temporary Farmers Loop Connection is being designed for the Steese and Johansen Expressways.
A new 'Diverging Diamond' Interchange with temporary Farmers Loop Connection is being designed for the Steese and Johansen Expressways.

A new 81-million dollar intersection to improve traffic flow and safety is being designed for the Steese and Johansen Expressways.

It has been scoped by state road engineers since 2018, but requires local municipalities to grant the state planning authority. It’s up for a public hearing this week before the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. But it is missing a trail underpass the Borough and other groups have asked for.

What planners are now calling the Steese-Jo intersection, carries approximately 21,000 vehicles throughout the day. At a Planning Commission meeting March 28, borough planner Donald Galligan said in coming years, that load will get heavier and heavier, with congestion at the intersection of the Steese and Johansen Expressways.

 ”With the forecast traffic, if we do nothing, we see the entire network in this area failing. This would essentially turn this whole area into gridlock without any kind of improvement.”

He explained why Alaska DOT is proposing what's called a ‘diverging diamond’ interchange for the two big expressways.

“While this particular design is new to Fairbanks, these interchanges are proliferating throughout the lower 48. It moves vehicles better. It has some interesting or unique  features to it that allow vehicles to move through, uh, relatively unimpeded. It will also enhance local bicycle and pedestrian routes and safety improvements.”

Ahead of this week’s meeting, design documents are included in the Borough Assembly’s agenda packet on the borough website. They show cost and environmental considerations, the impact on moving a Church of Jesus Christ LDS building on the corner, the flow into and out of Farmer’s Loop Road and how bike and pedestrian lanes will be built. But there’s nothing in the design documents about a trail connection under the roadway.

 It’s basically a very large culvert that would go underneath the Steese Expressway just north of the Johansen intersection.”

Jackson Fox, of Fairbanks Area Surface Transportation (FAST) Planning, (the state-designated transportation planning organization for Fairbanks and North Pole) says it has been part of plans for a long ski and hiking trail that might eventually be the 100-mile trail or connect to the proposed Alaska Long Trail.

“There’s been a desire for this underpass, so the trail systems from Birch Hill Recreation Area, you could safely ski from there underneath the highway and then connect in over to Creamer’s Field and UAF, you know, it would complete a connection all the way across town,” Fox said.

The Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks proposed in September 2021 that the borough construct the underpass from Birch Hill using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The Borough Assembly passed a resolution of support for an underpass in October 28, 2021. Fairbanks City Council passed a resolution in support in March 2022, as did the FAST Planning Policy Board.

FAST Planning’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) wrote the FNSB Planning Department in December asking them to include the underpass in the design and environmental documentation.

DOTPF Northern Region Information Officer, John Perreault, says even though there is no documentation of the underpass in the Assembly’s documents for their meeting this week, the trail connector is part of the state’s plan for the intersection.

 ”We have heard concerns that the underpass was being taken out, and as of this morning, the last time I spoke with the Northern Region director, the underpass for the ski trails is included in the plans,” Perrault said.

FAST Planning’s Jackson Fox says he’s been working with DOTPF planners over the winter on the intersection plans. He says adding the underpass for skiers will cost $2 million more than the $81 million cost estimated by the state.

“ DOT will move forward with designing it into the project, but their expectation at this time is that fast planning, uh, provide the $2 million,” Jackson said.

Fox says state and borough representatives worked together to approve FAST Planning’s five-year budget, but did not specify the need to add money for the underpass.

DOT’s Perrault says funding for the underpass is still being negotiated.

FAST Planning Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee is also having a meeting online and in-person this Thursday, from 5-7 p.m.

The resolution on the Steese-Jo intersection is on the Borough Assembly’s public hearing schedule beginning at 7:00 p.m. this Thursday.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.