Standoff over Seward Highway policing could lead to long road shutdowns

A standoff between the state's two largest police agencies threatens to leave the Seward Highway without patrols for long periods over the day and night and extend for hours the closures that follow an accident on the only road south from Anchorage.

The director of the Alaska State Troopers, James Cockrell, says Anchorage should take responsibility for policing its own boundaries, which run from south of Portage to north of Eklutna. But Anchorage city attorney Bill Falsey says local law won't allow that.

Troopers have historically patrolled the Seward Highway south of McHugh Creek and up to the entrance of Turnagain Pass, working overtime when they've had to. That's set to go away in early 2017, as budget cuts have pushed the troopers to a "breaking point," Cockrell said Tuesday.

Three Bureau of Highway Patrol officers from the Troopers will still be assigned to the Seward Highway. Their goal will be about 10 hours of patrolling per day, Cockrell said Tuesday.

But when the Highway Patrol punches off shift, there will no longer be an on-call highway cop to respond to crashes, Cockrell said.

A fatal crash could lead to a "substantial" road closures under those circumstances, Cockrell acknowledged. He said it already typically takes between four and six hours to clear a serious crash, and if one occurred at the end of a Trooper shift, the road could remain closed till long after the next one begins the following morning.

Cockrell asserted that Anchorage's police department, with more sworn officers than the State Troopers have, is big enough and functional enough to deal with the highway. Rural villages are going without police entirely, he said.

"We cannot afford to provide police services in an area that has the capabilities of providing those services, and have more police officers than we do, by far," Cockrell said.

Anchorage recently signed a contract with the Whittier Police Department to police Girdwood, with the exception of the small stretch of Seward Highway at the turn into town. That area is out of bounds, as are the other Turnagain Arm communities, Falsey said.

Girdwood residents voted in April to tax themselves for police protection, though they don't pay as much for police as Anchorage residents.

Falsey said the city can't legally absorb responsibility for the rest of the highway.

Anchorage residents pay for police protection in a service area that stops at McHugh Creek, Falsey said. He said it would take an area-wide vote to expand the coverage area.

"So far as I'm aware, there is no way we could routinely patrol the Seward Highway on the Turnagain Arm without additional authority from the voters to raise taxes," Falsey said.

Cockrell said the city has had time to explore its options.

"I think they think that if they do nothing, the troopers will stay there," Cockrell said.

In a strongly-worded letter late last month, assistant Alaska attorney general Elizabeth Bakalar faulted Anchorage officials for failing to find an alternate solution since troopers first alerted the city to their decision early last year to close the Girdwood post.

Bakalar's letter also said Anchorage should serve as the primary backup for police in Girdwood in an emergency, and that Anchorage dispatchers, not Soldotna, should receive calls that can't be taken by the Whittier Police Department. City officials took an opposite view in a meeting with Cockrell in October, Bakalar reported — that the city believed Troopers should back up Whittier police and that Soldotna should respond to emergency calls if Whittier dispatch wasn't available.

Those Anchorage opinions, Bakalar said, were "unacceptable" to troopers and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which runs the Soldotna dispatch center.

As state and city officials engage in their stare-down, the prospect of limited police presence and long closures on the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm is troubling people who live along the corridor.

Along the Seward Highway up to the edge of the city boundaries, near the start of Turnagain Pass, the fire departments in Anchorage and Girdwood share emergency medical responsibilities.

If an accident happens between the far side of Indian and the start of Turnagain Pass, Girdwood fire crews respond to take people to the hospital, Girdwood's fire chief, Will Day, said in an interview Tuesday.

But fire crews don't have the investigative authority to clear an accident scene, Day said. The highway could remain closed until a law enforcement official was able to respond.

Right now, it's not clear who would respond, and how soon — that's "the million-dollar question," Day said.

Falsey, the Anchorage city attorney, said officials in Anchorage are continuing to talk with troopers to work out a solution.

"I think it is true to say that we are also not satisfied with the possibility of there being very long highway closures," Falsey said.

The question of police protection for Turnagain communities outside of Girdwood is also unanswered.  

At this point, there would be limited police response to crimes in the communities along Turnagain Arm, such as Bird, Indian and Rainbow. Cockrell said most complaints will be handled by telephone from Seward.

Beau Obrigewitch, the president of the Turnagain Arm Community Council and an Indian resident, expressed hope in a telephone interview that an agreement will be worked out.

Unlike in Girdwood, Obrigewitch noted, there isn't a legal way now for Turnagain Arm residents to tax themselves to pay for police — they're not within the boundaries of an established service area like Girdwood.

He said he's concerned about what a lack of police could mean for the Seward Highway.  

"Honestly, my biggest fear is that there's going to be some catastrophic accident out there that may or may not have been preventable," Obrigewitch said.