On Anchorage's Fireweed Lane, a sidewalk obscured by a snow berm forces a woman toting a cooler on wheels to walk in the roadway. Cars slow down and switch lanes to avoid hitting her.
In Merlene Hanzuk's neighborhood in East Anchorage, berms built from plowed snow have taken over so much of the street that she says there's only room for one vehicle to drive at a time.
"It's the worst I've ever seen in our neighborhood," said Hanzuk, who has lived in the Foxhall subdivision since 1983.
In the midst of what meteorologists say is an unusually snowy winter, Anchorage residents say their sidewalks are disappearing and their streets narrowing.
The city and state agencies responsible for snow removal say their first job is to plow streets. They say they're working at full capacity but have been struggling to keep up with things like snow hauling and sidewalk clearing -- not because of fewer resources but more snow.
Anchorage is on pace to far exceed average winter snowfall, said meteorologist Sam Albanese of the National Weather Service's Anchorage office.
The city's total winter average is 74.5 inches, according to National Weather Service records. As of Jan. 6, Anchorage had already seen 69.8 inches of snowfall since October.
"It's definitely snowier than normal," Albanese said. "There's no question about that."
December was an especially brutal month, with the National Weather Service recording just six days without measurable snowfall.
That left crews constantly trying to keep up with basic functions, said Alan Czajkowski, the head of the city's Maintenance and Operations Department, which is responsible for snow removal on city-owned roads and neighborhoods in the Anchorage Bowl.
At least three agencies -- plus residents -- share the job of clearing the city's roadways, sidewalks and bus stops of snow. Each brings different methods, schedules and equipment.
Czajkowski's tools include 30 graders used to scrape hard-packed snow and ice from roadways, nine sanders, 18 dump trucks and 15 sidewalk tractors. Each day during the season, about 95 employees are at work clearing roadways and sidewalks.
Czajkowski says that while the overall street maintenance budget is down this year -- $20,459,000 from 2011's $21,559,000 -- the snow removal portion is a priority.
In 2011, the city spent $11, 693,000 on snow removal. In 2010, it spent $9,897,000.
It's too early to tell how much he'll spend in 2012, he said.
But he's not worried about running out of money.
While budgets fluctuate, snow removal seems to be untouchable, says Czajkowski.
"I'd be very confident to go to the administration and ask for more funds if necessary," he said.
After a new snowfall, the first priority for city plows is clearing major roads, called "collector streets" of snow, he said. Major roads maintained by the city include Arctic Boulevard, the Old Seward Highway, the downtown business district and Spenard Road.
Second priority is clearing "hazardous walking routes" to ensure children walking to and from school have a safe passage.
After that, neighborhood streets are plowed.
Snow is piled in berms that line streets, a condition workers call "choking down."
Jack Tobin, a musician and carpenter who lives at the corner of East 11th Avenue and Ingra Street downtown, says a two-lane road near his house is down to one lane.
"Eventually the city's going to run out of money right?" he said. "If this is what they're doing when they have money, I cant imagine when they don't."
City workers haul snow away using a blower and a dump truck only when the first three priorities have been taken care of.
"Really, hauling neighborhoods is like a fourth priority," Czajkowski said.
They've been slower this winter because snowstorms have come back-to-back, he said.
City snow removal crews had been using the cold, clear weather of the first week of January as an opportunity to catch up on hauling until new snowfall sent them back to clearing roads.
IT TAKES 2 AT BUS STOPS
People Mover personnel dig out bus stop benches and shelters -- 1,100 of them -- using two-person crews equipped with snow blowers and shovels, said Lance Wilber, Anchorage's public transportation director.
State-owned highways like the Glenn and Seward, along with some major roads in Anchorage like Tudor, Minnesota, Northern Lights and Benson, are plowed by the state Department of Transportation.
At least three times a week Aryeh Lax, a senior at Steller Secondary School in Anchorage, walks down one of those state-maintained roads, Fireweed Lane, to his bus stop.
Don't tell his mother: sometimes he walks in the road.
The sidewalks on Fireweed "basically disappear" in the winter, Lax said, standing at a bus stop near the corner of Arctic Boulevard and Fireweed Lane.
"It's not ideal," he said.
Fireweed is the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation between Arctic and the Seward Highway, said Rick Feller, an Anchorage Department of Transportation spokesman. The city takes care of the portion between Arctic and Spenard Road.
The two agencies use different equipment and techniques to plow, which is why sidewalks conditions aren't always consistent, Feller said.
Feller said the state and city share the responsibility for clearing sidewalks.
"We specialize in high-speed highway plowing," Feller said. "We are at a faster speed with different equipment than the municipality typically runs."
Clearing sidewalks has been slow this winter due to the unrelenting snowfall.
"When we have the opportunity to remove the snow after plowing, that's when sidewalks and pathways clear up," Feller said.
Even if they get to them, those sidewalks may not be clear for long: More snow is in the forecast for next week.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
City plowing priority system
When snow falls, city crews follow a priority system that determines which areas plows head to first.
• Priority 1: High traffic, city-owned "collector" roads plowed, along with downtown business district.
• Priority 2: Hazardous walking routes cleared, especially those to and from schools.
• Priority 3: Neighborhood streets plowed.
• Priority 4: Plowed snow hauled out of neighborhoods.
Source: Municipality of Anchorage Maintenance and Operations Department
• State of Alaska Department of Transportation: Interstate highways and state-owned roads.
• Anchorage Maintenance and Operations Department: City-owned roads and subdivisions, walking routes and sidewalks.
• Anchorage People Mover: Bus shelters and benches.
• Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department: Recreation facility parking lots, trail head parking lots, multi-use trails, share responsibility for walking routes and sidewalks.
• Residents: Sidewalks and driveways in residential neighborhoods.