The “complete” lure

Aug. 5, 2015

Making a pedestrian-friendly downtown area in Fairbanks, Alaska

“The lure of Alaska.” That is how City of Fairbanks Planning and Permitting Manager Jackson Fox characterized what brings an estimated 300,000 tourists to the greater Fairbanks area every year.

The conceptual design for Cushman Street’s reinvention.

But he might just as well have used that phrase to characterize an ongoing complete streets project that is aimed at revitalizing a presently cramped downtown district, bringing a dynamic aspect to a much-traversed artery of the city.

Cushman Street dissects downtown Fairbanks, rising over the Chena River and running in a smooth one-way for more than 13 city blocks before feeding into Airport Road and beyond. The value of this street in terms of both economic development and traffic management was at the forefront of initial overtures toward redevelopment, which began in 2008.

“When the project initially came about in 2008,” Fox told Roads & Bridges, “the plan was to revitalize downtown and encourage new business through the Vision Fairbanks Plan, which included making [Cushman] a signature street. To not just enhance it through landscaping and beautification but to really make it accommodating to pedestrians.”

Upon securing the requisite funding—$10 million from the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System as a direct appropriation via the state legislature, one-tenth of which was earmarked to subsidize privatized utilities work—planning began in earnest.

Less is more

Prior to putting a design scheme down on paper, the city sponsored seven traffic studies that addressed criteria such as bicycle needs, pedestrian foot-traffic levels, lane-traffic counts and lane-reduction effects. The result of these studies led city officials to the determination that the needs for a dedicated bicycle lane and for on-street parking were already being addressed by other streets in the immediate downtown area, but that where Cushman Street could make a significant impact was in improving means for pedestrian foot traffic.

Above: Crews have been mostly able to keep sidewalks open during utility work.
Below:Cushman Street in Fairbanks is presently three one-way lanes; this will be reduced to two with much wider sidewalks.

“We’re really focusing on pedestrians with this project,” Fox said. “We worked with Crandall Arambula on the design and amenities. The overall concept is to reduce the number of travel lanes from three to two. Right now the lanes are fairly narrow, they’re only about 10 ft wide. The existing sidewalks are also fairly narrow, about 5-6 ft wide. This corridor is built for vehicles, really; at present the sidewalks are narrow and uncomfortable and you’re got traffic almost right at your shoulder. The lane reduction will accommodate putting in wider sidewalks—approximately 12 ft wide on both sides of the street. The lanes themselves will also expand to 12.5 ft wide. The curb work will kick out to the cross streets only about 50-100 ft.”

The summer months in particular are heavy with foot traffic, and Cushman is home to many of the dining and shopping pulls in the city, so it was natural that, in addition to maintaining regular traffic access, the pedestrian areas would be given a makeover—in both function and style.

“Having those widened sidewalks allows us the opportunity to put in some new decorative features,” Fox went on, “such as new tree wells, planters and new decorative street and pedestrian lighting. It will provide more room for pedestrians and make them feel safer walking through downtown. The tree wells and planters are going out at the face of the curb, giving a nice buffer zone between vehicle traffic and foot traffic. The wider sidewalks will also afford businesses, such as local coffee shops, to put out street furniture in summer and draw in business that way.”

A tough one

“This is one of our toughest utility jobs and we’ve done them all over Fairbanks,” said Dale Himebauch, superintendent and project engineer for Exclusive Paving. Utility work has been ongoing since the spring thaw. “It’s a complete utility job: sewer, water, gas, storm drains, electrical, communications, duct banks, the whole deal. A challenge has been [the utilities] have been where we didn’t think they were.”

Multiple utilities running the length of this 13-block stretch of Cushman required Exclusive to excavate fully 15 ft into the ground, and to then address various utilities as they presented. 

“We’ve got sewer line at 15 ft,” Himebauch said. “Then there’s the water line at 6 ft, the gas line at about 4 ft and a steam line at about that depth, too. We had to move the sewer line completely over into the middle of the road to get away from a comm duct bank. And then there was another that was abandoned but the utility owner wanted to keep it, so we had to tunnel under that.”

Above: Utility work is presently ongoing.
Below: Crews on the Cushman project also will work 50-100 ft out at cross streets to complete curbsides and utilities.

Due to the depth of the work, safety has been a primary concern, necessitating an unforeseen, though temporary, diversion of traffic. “With as many utilities as you’ve got here, safety was our first and biggest concern,” project engineer Tony Weber told Roads & Bridges. “It’s a small area and there’s a lot going on, both above and below ground. It’s not safe to have vehicles running alongside a 14-ft-deep hole, so we’re diverting traffic on a block-by-block basis.”

“Once we finished a block,” Himebauch concurred, “we can bring traffic back on for that stretch.”

Pedestrian flaggers are on site at all times, along with a traffic-control supervisor to enable the project’s traffic-control plan. Moreover, Exclusive has a dedicated public contact to address all questions and concerns on the project, case by case. 

While business owners were naturally initially concerned about the road closure’s effect on their business, Fox insists “so far things are going OK. Workers are making steady progress and reopening lanes and sidewalks as they go. Plus all cross traffic remains open.” 

There’s been only one other hiccup, but it is one that has been blessed with a degree of foresight. “The one [other] unexpected thing we’ve had,” said Fox, “is that there is a telephone duct underneath the east-side sidewalk—well, actually what we discovered is that the duct actually is the sidewalk. Those lines go right through the sidewalk. So when we replace the sidewalk, all those lines will have to be replaced, too, which will result in a small change order. But we know that in advance.”

In the fall

As utility work, along with electrical work in advance of the arrival of the new lighting system designed for the corridor, is expected to occupy the best part of the summer, paving will likely not happen until early fall. But designers and engineers have wasted no time in identifying their lifts of choice.

“Because it’s Alaska, asphalt’s what we use up here,” said Weber. “Concrete won’t move like asphalt when the ground is freezing and thawing.” This was an important distinction, considering the expectation of an at least 15-year service life from the driving surface.

“We’ve got a lot of roads in Fairbanks that are 35-yrs-old,” said Fox, “which far exceeds the design life. I expect Cushman won’t have to be repaved for about 15-20 years. And then it will just be milling off and resurfacing. The sidewalks should last even longer, at least 35 years.”

Once the corridor is prepped for the pavers to roll in, Exclusive Paving will put down 3 in. of asphalt concrete Type II Class B over 3 in. of asphalt-treated base containing 4.5% AC Grade PG 52-28, over 18-in. Select Material Type A. 

“We should have this part of it—the utilities, street surface, sidewalks, beautification—buttoned up by Oct. 10,” said Weber,” except for signal poles, which we’ll come back and do in the spring.”  

The winter months will see Cushman Street full operable with the present traffic-control system. A new signal system is being manufactured, but will not be delivered until after the annual winter freeze, and will be installed next April. Fox is confident, however, it will be worth the wait. 

“We are upgrading signals to use radar detection,” he said. “They will also have an opticom system for emergency response, and all of the streetlights and pedestrian lights will be energy-efficient LED technology.”

Figure 1. Cutaway of a typical section of Cushman Street after construction.

How ‘bout some more?

Cushman Street has several north-south-running brethren in Fairbanks, and if the success in design, community appreciation and economy of construction all pull together as planned, then Fairbanks won’t be close to through with the application of complete streets concepts. Not even the overarching funding troubles that have been plaguing all public works departments will be allowed to intercede.

“This same design concept will be applied to Noble Street (a two-way artery to the east of Cushman) in 2016,” Fox said, “That’s funded and will be going under construction. We’re on shaky ground because of state funding problems. Oil prices have tanked. In previous years, we were getting a couple million dollars for local road improvements, but this year, we got none. Budget cuts are happening all throughout the state. But we’ve got money for previous years, so we’ve got active projects planned for the next couple of years that are funded. Still, we have to get more aggressive at pursuing federal grants. We’d like to do Barnett Street (a parallel one-way to the west) as well, when we get the funding in a future year.”

However it shakes out, the bottom line for Fairbanks officials is that infrastructure investment that considers the entire picture, the needs of all its citizens, is the way of the future. 

“We did this to accommodate more users,” Fox said. “We want people to stop and shop, to enjoy our city, and so we’re providing facilities for that, not just for residents but for visitors to our city. For everyone.” R&B

About The Author: Brian Budzynski is managing editor for Roads & Bridges

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