Motorists travel on the Seward Highway near the Hope Highway cutoff in Alaska on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Motorists travel on the Seward Highway near the Hope Highway cutoff in Alaska on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Maintenance station reopened after pressure from community

The announcement came one day after Sen. Peter Micciche, R- Soldotna, penned a letter to the governor

Following calls from area residents and lawmakers, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s Department of Transportation reopened the Silvertip Maintenance Station earlier this month to provide snow plowing and other road services on the Seward and Hope highways for the remainder of the winter season.

“Public safety is and will be the highest priority of my administration,” Dunleavy said in a press release on Dec. 18. “A crucial component in that pledge is keeping essential infrastructure, like our highways, in safe working order for the movement of residents, freight and emergency services.”

Dunleavy’s announcement came one day after Sen. Peter Micciche, R- Soldotna, penned a letter to the governor on Dec. 17 saying that the ongoing discussions around the fate of the maintenance station had reached a critical juncture.

“Frankly, I had had it,” Micciche told the Clarion Tuesday. “I was done with my typical, polite approach. Road conditions this year have been unacceptable.”

In the letter, Micciche asked the governor to take executive action and order DOT to reopen the station immediately, saying he would support the necessary budget increases in the upcoming legislative session. Micciche said he attempted to appeal to Dunleavy as a father rather than filling the letter with statistics and data on highway safety.

“I can write about the truckers that have had to abort their trips mid-stream because of the conditions, terrible accidents, families missing medical appointments, businesses on the Kenai awaiting deliveries as we experience bare shelves, but I would rather make this more personal,” Micciche said in the letter. “Families like mine load the most precious of cargo (in my case my wife and our four girls) into our vehicles to travel our lifelines of the Seward and Sterling Highways and now have to worry about what safety challenges we will find along the way. In my forty years of travel on that route, I can’t remember conditions like we have experienced lately.”

Despite the urgency expressed in his letter, Micciche said he was surprised at the swift action by the governor to reopen the station.

“That is exactly how government is supposed to work,” Micciche said Tuesday. “I really appreciate all of my constituents joining the effort, including the Alaska Trucker’s Association and the Highway Stakeholder group.”

Micciche and other Kenai Peninsula lawmakers signed a similar letter last year in response to the closure of the station in September 2019. At the time, DOT cited lower-than-expected revenue from the state’s motor fuel tax as the reason for closing the station, which cut five operator positions from DOT staff and split the maintenance duties of the 60-mile swath of highway between the Girdwood and Crown Point stations, located on either side of the Turnagain pass.

While the closure of the station was meant to reduce costs, Micciche said that he has seen estimates showing that the cost-savings over the past year was minimal.

“They didn’t actually close it down,” Micciche said. “The station was still warm all winter and they had chemicals and sand there. They just had people driving from farther away.”

Moving forward, Micciche said that Alaskans should prepare for a potential increase in the motor fuel tax to be on the table during budget discussions next year.

A majority of Alaska’s Senate, including Micciche, voted in favor of increasing the motor fuel tax from 8.95 cents per gallon to 16 cents per gallon last March, but the bill went no further once the state began addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Micciche told the Clarion Tuesday that he would revisit the potential of increasing the motor fuel tax during the next legislative session, but wants to prioritize reductions in spending before looking at a tax increase.

In an annual survey Micciche conducts among his constituents, he found last year that a majority of voters in District O were in favor of increasing the motor fuel tax in order to maintain the services provided by DOT. Alaska’s motor fuel tax is currently the lowest among any state, and Micciche said he would like it to remain the lowest even if it is increased.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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