Alaska News

ATVs become legal on many Alaska roads starting Jan. 1, but some cities are rushing to limit them

Kiana, atv, dog

A new state regulation that takes effect Jan. 1 will allow Alaskans to drive their ATVs on most roads with speed limits of 45 mph or less. But cities and boroughs can opt out of the new rule, and a rush to do so is creating a patchwork of rules in communities on the road system.

The new regulation was the work of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. In April, officials from the Department of Public Safety and Department of Administration said the goal is “to provide Alaskans the greatest opportunity to safely and affordably travel throughout the state.”

Communities opting out are citing safety concerns, including those raised by transportation experts, local police and firefighters.

“The Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police encourages the Department of Public Safety to reconsider this regulation change and not allow ATV or ROV vehicles on the roadways,” the president of the association wrote in late November.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office and a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety each said neither agency had received the letter.

“It is extremely dangerous to use ATVs and ROVs on paved roads intended for vehicles; they are simply not designed for that purpose,” said the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission this summer.

The city of Fairbanks banned ATVs on public roads in late November, Kenai renewed its ban this month, Sitka’s local government is scheduled to vote on a ban this week and Valdez’s city council voted on Dec. 21 to limit them.

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Some larger cities, including Anchorage and Juneau, have banned ATVs for decades.

But most of the borough governments along Alaska’s road system aren’t following that pattern. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Denali Borough and Fairbanks North Star Borough allow ATVs on roads, though cities within those boroughs may not.

In some cases, it’s because elected officials agree with the state’s new policy. In others, it’s because the limited powers of the local borough exclude transportation issues, leaving officials unable to act. The Fairbanks North Star Borough, for example, is a second-class borough, and road issues are handled by a series of service area boards, not the borough.

Local governments banning ATVs on roads

On roads where ATVs are allowed, drivers need to follow certain rules.

• They must have a headlight, a rear-facing red light, a rear-facing red reflector and a rear-facing red brake light. The vehicle must have brakes, a muffler, carburetor and throttle.

• Drivers must have a valid driver’s license and insurance but don’t have to wear a helmet. Passengers need to wear helmets.

• If the vehicle has seatbelts, they must be used, and any vehicle with seatbelts must use a child seat when carrying a child young enough to need one.

• The vehicle must be registered and have license plates.

• Snowmachines and hovercraft aren’t covered by the new regulation; they remain banned in most cases.

The Municipality of Anchorage banned snowmachines on city streets sometime before 1978, the year a ban appears in city code. Municipal officials expanded that prohibition to all “off-highway vehicles,” including ATVs, in 1989. The existing ban will not change on Jan. 1, city officials said. According to municipal code, ATVs can cross roads, but they can’t travel along them.

Cross into the Kenai Peninsula Borough from Anchorage, and it’s again legal to use ATVs on roads.

“ATVs will be permitted on all borough roads and historically have been permitted,” Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said by email. “As a second-class borough, we do not have police powers, and as such, the Alaska State Troopers handle any violations.”

However, inside the Soldotna, Kenai and Homer city limits, ATVs are not allowed on roads. Because Soldotna city limits run down the centerline of some local roads, city manager Stephanie Queen told the local council in November that there could be some confusion at the start of the year.

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“We feel this will be confusing for motorists and ATV operators, and potentially unsafe as well,” she said, also noting that she will be working with borough officials on the issue.

In Seward, city manager Janette Bower said ATVs will be allowed on roads, at least for the time being.

“We do have an ordinance prepared should it become an issue, but right now ... we’re following suit with the state,” she said.

North of Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough “does not currently have any rules restricting the use of ATVs on borough roadways,” said borough manager Mike Brown, and he added that the Assembly is not considering any measures to change that.

But as in the Kenai borough, ATVs are banned on roads within some city limits. The city of Palmer does not allow ATVs on streets, according to local ordinance and a spring city council discussion. Wasilla also forbids ATVs on streets and has a general 10 mph speed limit within city limits.

Houston is the only city in the borough that does allow ATVs on streets, and the deputy city clerk said no ordinances are being considered to change that.

North of Mat-Su, ATVs are allowed on roads in the Denali Borough, but the expectation is that most people will continue to ride on trails, said Borough Mayor Clay Walker.

“The Denali Borough hasn’t taken any restrictive actions regarding ATV use,” he said.

ATVs are allowed on roads in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, said borough spokesman Lanien Livingston. Borough Assemblyman David Guttenberg said that because the borough lacks authority over local roads, the local Assembly wasn’t able to take up the issue.

“If we did (have authority), we would have done something,” he said. “We would’ve at least debated it.”

Within the city limits of Fairbanks, ATVs are banned on public roads. City officials had considered simply limiting them to 35 mph, but they amended the proposal to an outright ban after hearing public testimony.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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