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In Alaska, Cars Are an Inferior Mode of Travel

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page G02

SEWARD, Alaska -- Ask people about traffic congestion in this state, and they'll tell you about the daily "backup" of cars and trucks along Seward Highway, a 127-mile stretch of mostly two-lane road running north-south between this tiny port town and Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

They'll talk about 5,000 cars a day using the highway between Seward and adjacent communities. And they'll say "5,000 cars" with emphasis, expecting the visitor to blanch or show some other form of shock that doesn't come.

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The visitor seeks clarification. "Oh, you mean a day, as in daily rush hour?" And the answer will come with the patience with which Alaskans seem willing to treat benighted but well-meaning outsiders.

"No, a day. I'm talking about 5,000 cars a day. They're planning to put in a commuter rail or something to relieve that congestion."

If you come from a large urban region such as the Washington-Baltimore area; if you've sat in your car for nearly an hour on the Virginia side of Interstate 95 or I-66 waiting for 5,000 cars and trucks to move across the Potomac River into the District of Columbia; if you've fought your way through seemingly thousands more vehicles to get through downtown traffic to your office, and you know it hardly matters which of the area's three extended rush hours -- morning, noon or evening -- you happened to be trapped in, you try hard not to laugh at the difficulty of contending with 5,000 cars a day on what is supposed to be a major highway.

But this is Alaska, where little seems to mean what it means in the lower 48 when it comes to cars, trucks, roads and traffic. This state, larger by far than the Great State of Texas or car-crazed California, has more miles of hiking trails than it does miles of roads for passenger vehicles.

A visit to the Chugach National Forest -- everything in this state appears to be a part of one national forest or another -- is a case in point. Located near Anchorage in south-central Alaska, the Chugach, which covers 5.6 million acres, making it the second-largest national forest in the nation, has hundreds of miles of hiking trails and 90 miles of roads open to passenger vehicles.

Overall, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, only 30 percent of the state has roads for passenger vehicles, with most of those arteries linking cities such as Anchorage, which has 260,000 residents, and Fairbanks, which has 30,000, according to the 2000 U.S. census. In fact, Juneau, the state capital, is landlocked. You can get there only by boat or plane. That's part of why there's a big controversy in these parts as to whether Juneau should remain the capital.

All this makes Alaska's road maps relatively easy to read, because there aren't that many roads on the map. Indeed, in some towns, such as little Talkeetna, which has two paved streets, the visitor is just as likely to find a single-engine plane sitting in an airfield adjacent to a private home as he is to find a sedan in a single-car garage.

Talkeetna, three hours north of Anchorage via the Alaska Railroad, is the staging-area town for people planning to climb what Alaskans call Mount Denali and what the federal government calls Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.

Getting to the Denali National Park and Preserve is a tedious trek that becomes virtually impossible by road or rail in winter months, when flying becomes the most viable option. But none but the hardy go to Denali in the winter anyway, and once there, they are likely to find a national park patrolled by forest rangers on dog sleds and state troopers in helicopters and planes.

It is not so much that Alaska is anti-car or anti-truck as it is that the state's legendary winters and wild and rugged interior naturally relegate private road runners to an inferior place in its transportation scheme. In such a milieu, practicality surpasses ego, and vehicle cost and effectiveness take precedence over whim in vehicle-buying decisions. Thus, in comparison with the rolling fleets of exotic metal often seen on the streets of the District, New York City, Miami and Los Angeles, there is a relative dearth of luxury automobiles and sport-utilities in Alaskan towns.

When winter's night and snow descend, when darkness rules the day as firmly as sunlight clings to the summer night, there isn't much to show off, anyway. Those who remain or visit here during that long, frigid passage generally want to bundle up and stay inside -- or go outside on skis.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company