Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jammed! Perfect storm of traffic snarls sunny Saturday at Alaska State Fair

Traffic backs up the Palmer-Wasilla Highway
last Saturday in this photo taken near
East Equestrian Street
A beautiful day at the Alaska State Fair last Saturday kicked off with the always popular parade. A real-deal famous musical act - country mega-duo Big & Rich - played that night. And for once, a BP donation got kids under 12 in free ... on a weekend! 

The result? The worst fair traffic in history. 

A trip to the fair Saturday turned into an hours-long wait as unprecedented congestion jammed the Glenn Highway and gridlocked the already-clogged Palmer-Wasilla Highway. 

By afternoon, miles of traffic extended away from the fair in both directions.

Perplexed drivers got out of their cars with traffic at a standstill. At least one driver reported her car overheated. Another said she spent an hour and half alone in front of the Palmer Carrs store where Palmer-Wasilla hits the Glenn. 

Big & Rich got stuck in traffic coming in from Anchorage. Crowds maxed out the fair’s sewer system. Six Shamrock Septic trucks called in for emergency pumping couldn’t clear the congestion either. 

Thanks to quick thinking by fair staff and fast action from Palmer police, the band and the trucks got escorts. The concert started on time. The poop got pumped. 

But the rest of us got stuck in traffic. 

The fair’s own marketing director, Dean Phipps, confronted the problem first hand. Phipps took his son to a football game in Houston. 

“It took me two hours to get back to the Fair,” Phipps said in an email this week. 

So what happened? Inept parking lot staff? Not enough parking? Problems with crowd control at fair entrances?

Everybody involved - Alaska State Fair officials, state transportation, Palmer police - agree on one thing: Saturday’s fair attendance was huge. 

Rick Feller, a state transportation spokesman, said he was told Saturday that crowds broke records. Feller heard more than 50,000 people crammed into the fairgrounds. An official attendance number won’t come for a few weeks, when the fair finishes its tally.

Julie Ebner, of Talkeetna, gets friendly with Denali
the llama at the Alaska State Fair on Tuesday.
In 16 years working the fair, Palmer police Commander Lance Ketterling said he’s rarely seen anything like it. But, Ketterling said, he also wasn’t surprised. 

“When you have a weekend like that, especially when its sunny, you can almost anticipate big crowds,” he said. “This past Saturday was extremely busy. The overflow parking lot was heavily used. They just had a lot of people.”

Ketterling said no major wrecks happened near the fair; Feller said he heard there were a few fender-benders that created a domino effect as the flow of traffic slowed. 

Phipps said that, as far as the fair is concerned, the real problem is that the Glenn remains two lanes, instead of four, from the Parks Highway to Palmer. And Palmer-Wasilla will get crowded until the Bogard Road extension is done. 

“It is a year-round situation that is heightened during the Fair,” he said. 

As for parking on Saturday, here’s the text of Phipps’ email on the subject:

“We filled up all of our three main lots and then opened up our 20 acres of overflow parking in Brown lot, which is the area adjacent to Hamilton Farm.  When that area started to fill, we filled in empty spaces in Yellow Lot that were vacated.  We also did that for half of the available empty spaces in our Red lot.  We have certified flaggers at key areas like the intersection at Purple Gate that are employed by Starplex.  Palmer Police assisted in many areas helping with expediting traffic.  We had a continuous flow of cars going in and being parked in several areas, but on a perfect storm day with sunny weather predicted and storms the following day, everyone got up and all came to the Fair at the same time.” 

In case you’re wondering, there’s no shuttle service at the Alaska State Fair as there is at some of the big fairs in the Lower 48; the fair couldn't work out a system with MASCOT. The Alaska Railroad operates a fair train, but it’s too pricey for most - around $50 for an adult round trip. Valley Mover makes the trip - once daily - for $12.50.

 In the meantime, at least one problem highlighted by last weekend’s crowds appears fixable. 

The fair has received funding for a new sewer system, Phipps said. It should be in the works soon.  

-- Zaz Hollander

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