Snow has fallen across much of Alaska, and winter tires could be more important than ever this season.
Cuts to the state operating budget have forced the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to eliminate 35 surface transportation maintenance positions and abolish overtime for winter road crews.
DOT took a $34 million hit — a 12.5 percent reduction — to its fiscal 2016 general fund operating budget, most of which goes to running the Alaska Marine Highway System and maintaining the states roads, runways and other facilities.
“We had cuts across the entire department. Those included the removal of positions and many of those positions were maintenance positions,” DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said.
The department’s unrestricted general fund budget is $247.9 million this fiscal year. Saving money through efficiencies and doing away with vacant positions were the first steps to avoid pink slips, but in the end, 85 positions either went unfilled or were cut through direct layoffs in DOT this fiscal year, Woodrow said.
There were 556 equipment operators in DOT last fiscal year to clear the state’s roads and airports, according to the 2015 State of Alaska Workforce Profile report.
The cuts to road crew man-hours were felt right away in Fairbanks when the city endured more than a foot of snow in late September. Woodrow said DOT received numerous complaints and inquiries regarding road conditions after the Sept. 25 and Sept. 29 storms.
A repeat of last winter across much of Alaska could be helpful, to road crews anyway.
“It’s one of those things, if it’s a real mild winter no one will have a clue; they won’t notice any change at all” in road maintenance, he said.
A road prioritization scale has been made available so the public can know ahead of time which roads will get the first plows during major snow events. The five road priority levels are based on traffic volume, speed, connectivity between communities and other available routes within local transportation networks, according to a department release. They are defined by DOT as:
Priority Level 1: high-volume, high-speed highways, expressways, minor highways, all safety corridors and other major urban and community routes. May take up to 24 hours to clear after a winter storm.
Priority Level 2: routes of lesser priority based on traffic volume, speeds and uses. Typically, these are major highways and arterials connecting communities. May take up to 36 hours to clear after a winter storm.
Priority Level 3: major local roads or collector roads located in larger urban communities. May take up to 48 hours to clear after a winter storm.
Priority Level 4: minor local roads that provide residential or recreational access. May take up to 96 hours to clear after a winter storm.
Priority Level 5: roadways that are designated as “No Winter Maintenance” routes, e.g. Denali Highway or Taylor Highway. Generally cleared only in spring to open road for summer traffic.
Woodrow said the department has always had the winter road maintenance scale internally, but never felt the need to publicize it, as crews working extra hours made delegating resources less necessary.
“We just don’t have the resources that we have had in the past,” he said.
A map detailing which priority level Alaska’s roads fall under is available on the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities website at dot.alaska.gov/stwdmno/wintermap/index.shtml.
DOT Commissioner Marc Luiken has proposed setting up a surface transportation maintenance fund to balance the ebbs and flows of funding to something as crucial to all Alaskans as road and airport upkeep.
“This (fund) wouldn’t build capital, this is intended to take care of the system,” Luiken said.
The fund would designate revenue from fuel and vehicle taxes and fees into general road maintenance expenses. He said it would “even the playing field” between some coastal Alaskans who feel the state ferry funding is unduly scrutinized by those on the road system. It could also be a starting point for beginning talks about raising the motor fuel tax or other vehicle fees to in-turn adequately supply the fund, he surmised.
At 12.25 cents, Alaska’s total gasoline tax is the smallest in the nation. Pennsylvania and Washington have the highest state gas taxes at 55.3 cents and 44.5 cents, respectively, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
The Alaska Aviation Advisory Board is recommending to raise aviation fuel taxes to help pay for airport maintenance and a stated goal of the Federal Aviation Administration found on its Alaskan Region website is to “Encourage (Alaska) to establish dedicated airport fund and pursue all aviation resources to adequately fund maintenance.”
Some legislators he has talked to have been intrigued by the idea, Luiken said, but whether shifting dwindling state funds or raising taxes will ultimately be palatable is unclear.
The funds are very common in other states — to the point where when his colleagues in transportation departments across the country hear Alaska does not have a transportation maintenance fund, “their jaws drop,” Luiken said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.