Winter Maintenance Decreases on Hope, Seward Hwys
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
“My question to the policy makers here is how much blood do we need to shed on that highway before we start putting some gravel down?”
– Hope/Sunrise Emergency Services Chief Brendan McGuire
On October 15, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) closed the Silver Tip Maintenance Station, located at the junction of Seward Highway and Hope Highway. Silver Tip maintained Seward Highway through Turnagain Pass, and these duties will now be split between Girdwood Maintenance Station and Crown Point, south of Moose Pass. In addition to the stations’ increased coverage areas, there will be no regular maintenance from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
A September 4 DOT&PF press release states, “Plowing during winter storms in Turnagain Pass will be prioritized” and “The department will approve extended working hours to respond to winter storms.”
The station was closed due to lower than expected revenue from the motor fuel tax, which funded the station. According to the Alaska Department of Revenue, “Alaska levies a motor fuel tax and surcharge on motor fuel sold, transferred, or used within Alaska.”
Two accidents occurred within six miles of Silver Tip just before and after its closing.
Alaska State Trooper Dispatch (ASTD) stated on October 12 there was a fatal, two-vehicle, head-on collision on the Seward Highway at milepost 66: “Road conditions were icy and slick […] when a southbound green Toyota Camry failed to negotiate a curve, crossed the centerline, and stuck the Honda Pilot head-on.”
Silver Tip closed three days later, and three days afterwards there was an accident at Seward Highway milepost 63.5. The October 19 ASTD said the driver “lost control of his 2006 Nissan Titan which left the roadway and overturned. Road conditions were icy.”
To learn how the region’s residents will be affected, the Gazette spoke with Brendan McGuire, Hope/Sunrise Emergency Services Chief (HSES); Shannon McCarthy, DOT&PF Media Liaison, Administrative Operations Manager; and Scotty Smith, President, Hope, Inc. (the unincorporated community’s nonprofit, governing body).
Chief McGuire said HSES’s primary response area is the 17-mile long Hope Highway. Turnagain Pass, down to Ingram Creek at Seward Highway MP 75, and south toward Summit Lake are tertiary responsibilities. Being able to get to an accident scene and return safely is key. If roads are hazardous, McGuire will call Soldotna dispatch to say HSES cannot respond until a road is serviced.
“Scene safety is our number one priority for all of our responders,” McGuire said. “That includes being able to access the scene safely. If the roads are not serviced or plowed, and we can’t safely get our equipment down the road, we’re not going to be able to go.”
McGuire’s line between going out on a call and not depends on a road’s condition, which will vary. HSES’s response to the fatal accident gave him indications of what this winter may bring.
“I have driven down the Hope Road at less than five miles an hour on glare ice, and it’s taken me two and a half hours to get 15 miles.”
– Scotty Smith, President, Hope, Inc.
“Last weekend there was a fatality on the Seward Highway,” McGuire said. “We have studded tires and chains on the ambulance. Our guys still felt it was really slick driving. They were driving appropriately, but they were driving very slow compared to what it would be if the road conditions were better. My guys said [while returning] that coming onto the Hope Road, a gravel truck was getting ready to leave Silver Tip. My question to the policy makers here is how much blood do we need to shed on that highway before we start putting some gravel down?”
With resources stretched thin and no plowing for six hours overnight, McGuire said if a call came in and road conditions were too poor to respond, there is no emergency plan in place for DOT&PF to get HSES to a scene safely.
“I have heard nothing from DOT,” McGuire said. “In the past few years, the Hope Road has been deprioritized. Now with the closure of the Silver Tip Station, everyone is anticipating it will go from bad to worse. This is going to really limit our town’s ability to get in and out of town and travel safely from Hope to the metropolitan areas.”
The Gazette contacted Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue Chief Michelle Weston who replied, “I will not send our volunteer firefighters into unsafe conditions in the non-maintained highway area because the state cannot make highway safety a priority.”
DOT&PF’s McCarthy explained winter road maintenance is state-funded, so when motor fuel tax revenue declined, there was $750,000 maintenance reduction that led to Silver Tip’s closure.
“We have had incremental budget reductions over the last six years,” McCarthy said. We’ve lost about $22 million in operating funds for maintenance. We had to look and see where we could make efficiencies. Silver Tip was a strategic decision because the Turnagain Pass area can be cleared by the two nearby stations – Girdwood and Crown Point. South Anchorage Station is shifting south to get all the sections of road covered.”
McCarthy acknowledged operators will have to drive further and it will take longer to clear the roads. She said Girdwood Station will clear Hope Highway. Extended hours will be authorized on a case-by-case basis and prioritized for heavy storms.
“We have the option of working extended hours should we get a large storm,” McCarthy said, “but at some point our operators have to get some rest and get ready for the next day. I would point out that this is new for Southcentral in terms of limited crew hours. It is the case we have on the Dalton, the Parks and the Richardson Highways. All of those highways have limited operating hours for our crew members.”
McCarthy recommended travelers use the 511 system, which is regularly updated by operators, and check road weather cameras.
Hope, Inc.’s Smith described driving Hope Highway in winter saying, “Our biggest concern is ice. When the roads aren’t consistently maintained, you get that buildup, and the snow packs down and gets harder to maintain. Instead of being proactive, you’re being reactive, which makes for worse driving conditions. It can be white-knuckle driving a lot of the time. I have driven down the Hope Road at less than five miles an hour on glare ice, and it’s taken me two and a half hours to get 15 miles.”
With highway maintenance further reduced, Smith asserted, Hope residents could go extended amounts of time without service and experience rougher road conditions, making it harder for people who commute or for those with medical needs. In an emergency, a Life Flight or Medivac flight would be required if Hope or Seward Highways are impassable, but there could be complications.
“I imagine they would go down to the Seaview or the airfield,” Smith said, “but the airfield is under DOT maintenance, so if the road hasn’t been plowed, then there is going to be an airport basically inaccessible for emergency vehicles to get to the airplane or helicopter. The emergency response vehicles won’t be able to get to the residence and transfer a patient to the helicopter.”
Smith said drivers should plan for winter travel. An accident can close the highway or vehicles break down. Drivers should be diligent about checking 511 and carry a hypothermia kit – extra sleeping bag, jacket, hat, gloves, socks, footwear, and appropriate winter gear. Vehicles should be 4WD with snow tires, chains, a winch or tow strap and jumper cables.
Smith advised Hope residents to make sure their medicines, pantries and fuel supplies are well stocked in case of a long closure because Hope does not have a gas station. He also warned about preparing for an extended power outage since Chugach Electric may be delayed due to road conditions.
“They have snow machines, and they have their way of getting around, but extended power outages for the home would be the biggest deal for Toyo stoves, appliances or boiler systems without power generators. Have enough fuel to fuel your generators. Have enough wood to keep your woodstove going. Store a little bit extra in case your neighbor needs your help.”
“I will not send our volunteer firefighters into unsafe conditions in the non-maintained highway area because the state cannot make highway safety a priority.”
– Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue Chief Michelle Weston