Alaska DOT significantly reduces snow removal on Seward Highway
October 18, 2019
Lower revenue from fuel taxes is showing its effect nationwide. In Alaska, the state Department of Transportation has significantly reduced snow and ice removal on Seward Highway.
In September, the Alaska Department of Transportation announced the closure of the Silver Tip Maintenance Station. The station is at the junction of the Seward Highway and Hope Highway. Consequently, snow and ice removal has been significantly decreased.
According to an Alaska DOT news release, the maintenance station covered Seward Highway through Turnagain Pass. Now that it is closed, duties will be split between staff at two other stations.
Instead of two 10-hour shifts covering snow and ice removal, split staff will cover the Silver Tip region only from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. That means any snow or ice accumulated overnight will go untouched until the morning. However, extended working hours will be implemented to respond to severe weather.
The Alaska DOT attributes the cuts to “lower-than-expected revenue from the motor fuel tax,” according to a news release. In addition to the above cuts, five operator positions were eliminated from the DOT’s central region as well.
Local lawmakers’ response
Shortly after the Alaska DOT issued the news release, local lawmakers reacted.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna; Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer; and Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, all signed off on a letter to Alaska DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon expressing their concern.
“Not surprisingly, we are all concerned with what this closure will mean for the safety and security of the residents of our communities,” the letter states. “Intermittent closures of the Sterling Highway during the recent Swan Lake Fire resulted in empty shelves in Peninsula stores and the interruption of normally available other goods and services.”
Lawmakers question the claim of “lower-than-expected revenue from the motor fuel tax.” In the letter, they ask the commissioner to explain the amounts in detail.
“Since the tax is levied at 8.95 cents per gallon, fuel prices have no effect,” the letter states. “Are sales actually substantially lower, justifying a reduction of constitutionally required critical transportation service?”
More importantly, the lawmakers address issues surrounding the trucking industry. Specifically, they point out that truck travel “primarily take place in the early hours of the morning.” If the highway is not plowed, it will force more drivers competing for road space during a narrower time frame.
Alaska DOT’s reply
On Oct. 1, Commissioner John MacKinnon responded to the lawmakers’ letter.
MacKinnon pointed out that extended hours will be approved as needed. Furthermore, the DOT will close the highway if it feels “conditions have deteriorated to the point of compromising public safety.”
In regards to reducing hours to 4 a.m. through 8 p.m., MacKinnon explained that this allows staff to focus on acceptable road conditions “when the greatest numbers of drivers are on the road.”
The letter did not explain fuel tax amounts in detail as requested. Additionally, MacKinnon did not address trucking at all. Rather, he shifted the blame back to lawmakers.
“In prior years when revenue from the motor fuel tax has fluctuated, the Legislature has replaced any resulting shortfall to the department with general funds,” MacKinnon said in the reply letter. “Since this did not happen this year, we have developed a management plan with the operating funds available to the department.”
Lawmakers are still pressing for answers.
“(Sen. Micciche) continues to ask questions of DOT in an effort to understand the ‘logic’ in the decision to close Silver Tip and to encourage the reopening of the station,” a spokesperson for Sen. Micciche told Land Line.