This week’s snowstorm in Southcentral Alaska exposed significant problems in the Municipality of Anchorage’s plowing operations, including resource shortages that elected leaders were only made aware of in late November — just weeks before much of the city received 1 to 2 feet of heavy, dense snow over three days.
Days after the snow stopped falling, residents, parents and politicians across the state’s largest city were venting over residential streets still not being cleared, schools notching a third straight day closed and some main thoroughfares more closely resembling washed-out gravel roads than urban traffic corridors.
“Although I recognize that municipal crews remain hard at work in dealing with our record-breaking snowfall, I also know that school closures will have unequal effects on our student groups,” Anchorage School Board member Kelly Lessens said in an email to members of the Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson.
“I expect that this third day of closures will be highly disruptive for students, families and the economy of Anchorage as a whole,” she wrote. “Both as a parent and as a board member, I am disappointed that our schools remain closed because enough city streets and sidewalks remain unplowed.”
With significant snow forecast this weekend, concerns are persisting over more school closures and hazardous roads.
Plowing is a core service in Anchorage, which has a street maintenance division of more than 100 full-time employees in charge of 1,281 lane-miles of municipally managed roads and another 200 miles of sidewalks and recreational trails. It follows a structured plan that aims to have streets fully plowed within 84 hours, beginning with the arterial roadways that cut across town and working backwards down to residential streets. The state is responsible for clearing many of the largest, busiest roads that cut through the densest traffic corridors — think Northern Lights, Dimond and Minnesota boulevards and Tudor Road — and can linger unplowed and treacherous even as nearby municipal corridors are promptly cleared.
Members of the Assembly are quick to point out this was an exceptionally heavy snow event that would have posed a challenge to clean up in any year. However, several are also pointing to larger problems that only recently came to light and are exacerbating the weather event: what they described as poor preparation by the Bronson administration ahead of the winter plowing season, and a lack of attention to significant job vacancies, busted equipment and rising costs squeezing municipal budgets for essential services.
“We as the Assembly just found out that we were both short workers and that costs were higher, leading to a decrease in available services,” said Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson. “We didn’t find that out until late November when we were finalizing the budget.”
Anchorage, like other cities around the state and nation, is contending with economic challenges as it recovers from the pandemic: aggressive inflation, difficulty hiring workers for essential services, high fuel prices and supply chain issues that can lead to basic equipment repairs taking months. Those are many of the same dynamics now hampering the municipality’s snowplow fleet. But Assembly members say they didn’t hear anything about potential impacts from the administration until the a few weeks ago.
At a Nov. 22 meeting, Quinn-Davidson proposed adding extra funds into the proposed budget to handle additional snow hauling from neighborhoods and sidewalk plowing in the 2023 budget. In the course of discussion on that proposal, the Bronson administration brought out the man in charge of the city’s snowplow operations, who surprised Assembly members by telling them that the extra funds amounted to treading water.
“This additional money will break us even with where we have been in the past,” said Paul VanLandingham, street maintenance manger in the municipality’s Department of Maintenance and Operations. “With increases of up to 70% in snow hauling costs for this year, this additional money will get the residents of Anchorage the same service they have gotten in previous years, nothing additional.”
‘A massive escalation in the costs’
The problems bearing down on snow-plowing operations are myriad: rising costs from inflation, supply chain issues making it harder to promptly fix broken grading equipment, and difficulty hiring and retaining personnel with the certifications necessary to handle heavy machinery.
“We’re having a hard time putting people in seats,” VanLandingham told the Assembly, warning that with winter bearing down, there was only so much that additional funding could do to remedy likely delays digging the city out after a major snowfall. “Because we are struggling with manpower issues right now, I don’t know how much more work we’re going to be able to complete.”
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski told Assembly members that the city is contending with a barrage of financial pressures on its plow fleet, from higher fuel prices to more expensive contracts with the private companies that haul away snow to towering mounds at specific dump sites around town.
“We’re seeing a massive escalation in the costs ... year over year when we enter into these contracts,” Demboski said. “Things are costing a whole lot more than they did in previous years.”
Demboski also said the Department of Maintenance and Operations typically has 87 plow operators during the winter season. This year, because of problems hiring enough employees with the necessary commercial driver’s licenses, they are down to 54.
She rejected the assertion by Assembly members that flat-funding the snowplow budget amid aggressive inflation amounted to a service cut.
Before voting to add $1.5 million toward the Maintenance and Operations department’s budget for covering plow costs, members said they were surprised to hear the administration was aware of staffing shortages and fiscal challenges but hadn’t communicated anything about it to the body.
“We weren’t briefed on this situation,” said Assembly member Meg Zalatel.
She raised the idea of offering financial incentives to attract and retain qualified plow operators.
“We have had a very high standard of snow removal,” Zalatel said of the municipality. “And I want to make sure we’re doing our part to make sure it’s fully funded.”
“The mayor’s office did not show any leadership and did not request that the assembly increase snow removal funds. We did it anyway without their support,” said Assembly member Forrest Dunbar.
In response to specific questions on plowing issues, a spokesman for the Bronson administration emailed a statement Friday afternoon with the most up-to-date figures on citywide progress.
“As with any large employer, the Municipality of Anchorage has faced challenges in hiring (commercial drivers license) holders and equipment operators. We have been working with the unions, HR, community partners and more to bring people on board. Hiring qualified operators remains a significant challenge,” wrote Deputy Communications Director Hans Rodvik.
As of Friday, 28 of the city’s 30 graders were in operation, according to the Bronson administration. All major municipality-owned roadways had been cleared at least once, and as of Friday morning around a quarter of residential streets had been plowed.
For their part, state crews cleared major roadways in and around the Anchorage Bowl as of Friday, and were aiming to finish several frontage roads and lower-priority streets by Saturday.
“Just a lot of snow,” said Justin Shelby, an operations manager for the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
‘Record breaking snow’
“There are two simultaneous problems: One is we need more funding for haul-outs to get snow out of our neighborhoods,” said Quinn-Davidson. “The second problem is the labor problem ... That is a problem I’m surprised the administration did not try to solve earlier.”
Those issues might not have come so glaringly to light if the city had not been hit by what is, by local standards, an exceptionally heavy snowfall for early winter.
“You just can’t minimize the fact that we’ve had a record breaking snow,” said Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, who has been in office long enough to be familiar with the annual chorus of complaints that ring across the municipality each time residents feel maligned or ignored by the fleet of snow removal machines lumbering through cul-de-sacs and alleyways.
This time, though, it really does seem to be going slower and sloppier than usual, Constant said.
“I was surprised to find out we were so far behind the curve,” he said of plow progress on Friday.
Not only did a lot snow fall, particularly in East Anchorage and the Hillside, but it’s heavy snow that made plow work take even longer, dragging out the time it takes to clear each of the municipality’s 61 sectors.
“Things are tremendously slower,” VanLandingham said. “For instance, we had one sector that usually takes us about half a shift to three-quarters of a shift to get done. We didn’t get a quarter of the way through. It’s just a lot of snow.”
With more snow forecast starting Saturday night and ratcheting up Sunday, VanLandingham said there was a tension between how fast crews can work plowing roads, and how thoroughly they are able to clear them of snow without leaving craggy, chest-high berms piled in front of driveways and bus stops.
“People want speed. People want quality. And that’s what we are discussing among my staff and among some of the higher-ups here,” he said.
The city also simply has more road-miles and sidewalks than it did in the past, which has necessitated extending the plow-out schedule from a 72-hour target to 84 hours, VanLandingham said.
“We’ve been doing this a long time, me and my staff, and I’d say this is one that’s just going to be a slow go,” he added. “And I keep saying: It’s Anchorage, Alaska, the middle of winter.”
Anchorage Daily News reporter Tess Williams contributed reporting.