Kenai Peninsula Borough and state leaders have expressed concerns after a maintenance station responsible for winter plowing on the Seward Highway closed Tuesday due to reduced fuel tax revenue.
The Alaska Department of Transportation announced the closure of the Silvertip Maintenance Station, located at the junction of the Seward and Hope Highways, in September.
The station, built in 1974, has been responsible for the maintenance of the Seward Highway through Turnagain Pass. The maintenance duties of Turnagain Pass will now fall on both the Girdwood Maintenance station and the Crown Point station south of Moose Pass.
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.
The Seward Highway corridor, which is prone to extreme winter conditions, is facing limited hours of operation. Shannon McCarthy, media liaison with the Department of Transportation, said 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.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce made a statement in support of keeping Silvertip Station open. His statement said the station’s closure will further limit snow removal operations, impacting road safety as well as potentially delaying emergency personnel that respond to vehicle accidents within this 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.”
On Wednesday, the mayor told the Clarion that the Seward Highway corridor is critical. He said people have few options to get to and from Anchorage, where many peninsula residents travel for medical appointments and to access Anchorage’s international airport.
“Not everybody is in a hopped-up truck that can handle the elements,” Pierce said.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna, said that when the Seward Highway closes, the Kenai Peninsula becomes Kodiak: isolated.
Micciche penned a letter Sept. 12 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.
Another concern in his letter is heavy semitruck traffic on the corridor, which normally takes place in the early hours of the morning, he said. Cutting services in the area will likely cause competition on the highway and significant safety impacts between commercial drivers and other residents traveling the highway, Micciche said.
“We remain doubtful that safe highway maintenance is possible with the changes you are proposing,” the letter reads. “We are supportive of reducing costs to the State of Alaska where we can, but not at the expense of the lives and safety of our constituents or any other traveler on the often-treacherous Seward Highway corridor.”
Public safety should be the last item on the chopping block instead of the first, he said in the letter.
Commissioner MacKinnon responded to the lawmakers’ letter Oct. 1, saying that he shares concerns for adequate winter maintenance along the highway.
“By moving personnel to the Girdwood and Crown Point maintenance stations, resources will have to travel further to respond,” MacKinnon said in the letter. “The result will be a lower level of service. Time spent in transit will increase; time spent on sanding, grading and plowing will decrease … We understand weather events will not always cooperate with this schedule and therefore anticipate the potential for highway closures.”
MacKinnon said the Legislature could have addressed the budget shortfall with general funds, but did not.
“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, McCarthy said.
“We need to let them know this threat to public safety is unacceptable,” Micciche said.
The Silver Tip Maintenance Station covered the Turnagain Pass area between two 10-hour shifts. The Crown Point and Girdwood stations will cover the Silver Tip region from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.