The closure of a road maintenance station that serves sections of the Seward Highway has incited criticism from the public, borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and local lawmakers. The borough assembly may also be formally asking the department to reopen the station.
The Department of Transportation closed the Silvertip Maintenance Station as of Oct. 15. The station, which sits at the crossroads of the Seward and Hope Highways, was responsible for maintaining the Turnagain Pass Corridor. Some of the station’s staff and equipment has been redistributed to stations in Girdwood and Moose Pass, which will be taking over the maintenance of the highway.
Assembly members Norm Blakely and Kenn Carpenter penned a resolution urging the Alaska Department of Transportation to keep the station open.
In the resolution, they say the lack of maintenance will “detrimentally impact road safety by delaying the ability of emergency personnel to respond to vehicle accidents” within the highway corridor.
This section of the Seward Highway will move from having intermittent 20-hour coverage to continuous 18-hour coverage. Service will be provided between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The closure is due to cuts triggered by lower than expected revenue from the motor fuel tax, which supports the department’s maintenance workers and stations. In addition to the station’s closure, five operator positions were cut from the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities central region.
DOT says it will take longer for operators to get to the pass to address maintenance needs. During winter storms, the department can approve extended working hours.
Pierce made a statement in support of keeping Silvertip Station open. He said the station’s closure will further limit snow removal operations, impacting road safety as well as potentially delaying emergency personnel responding to vehicle accidents within the Seward Highway corridor.
“Emergency response is already difficult for this remote area of the Seward Highway,” Pierce said in his statement to the department. “The volunteer emergency responders are tasked with long difficult responses, and this closure will only make their jobs more difficult with more responses as well as increase risks on the Seward Highway during the winter months.”
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna, penned a Sept. 12 letter to Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon that was signed by other peninsula lawmakers, including Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna; Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer; and Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Homer/Kodiak. In his letter, Micciche asked the commissioner to justify the closure, asking about specific decreases in motor fuel tax revenues and about other service reductions being made around the state.
Micciche mentioned the intermittent closures of the Sterling Highway during the Swan Lake Fire, which resulted in empty shelves in peninsula stores. Public safety should be the last item on the chopping block instead of the first, he said in the letter.
MacKinnon responded on Oct. 1 to the lawmakers’ letter, saying that he shares concerns for adequate winter maintenance along the highway. He said the maintenance division is operating with $22 million less than it had six years ago.
“We cannot provide same level service on smaller and smaller budgets,” MacKinnon said in the letter. “We remain committed to providing the best service possible with the resources we are given.”
Since 2014, four maintenance stations in Alaska have been shut down due to budget cuts, all in the state’s northern region.
Should the resolution pass, copies of it will be sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, MacKinnon, local lawmakers and nearby cities.