With back-to-back winter storms blanketing Alaska’s largest city, city officials in Anchorage are racing to add capacity for plowing and hauling away an exceptional volume of snow.
Acknowledging that the municipality’s snow removal operations have lagged behind target schedules, Mayor Dave Bronson on Monday said the “epic snowfall” left between 36 and 43 inches of accumulation in different parts of town, with the greatest depths in East Anchorage and the Hillside.
Two feet of snow fell in parts of the city over two days last week, testing snow removal efforts even before this latest storm. City plow crews were not able to clear eight of 60 neighborhood street sectors before the snow began again Sunday afternoon.
Bronson disputed reports that a lack of funding or personnel was hampering the response, saying municipal crews have been running heavy equipment around the clock during 12-hour shifts since last week.
“Some have suggested that we declare an emergency,” Bronson said at a briefing Monday. “There’s nothing more we can do beyond what we’re doing so the emergency would be simply meaningless.”
The city maintains detailed plans for clearing roughly 1,300 lane-miles of municipally managed roads, plus 200 miles of sidewalks and 300 more miles of trails, aiming to have everything cleared within 84 hours. Those protocols are based on average snowfalls, however, and now are strained by the current high levels of accumulation.
“The parts of town that were plowed last during the previous snowfall last week, they will have their streets plowed first on this go around,” Bronson said.
Even in a winter city like Anchorage, the snow has brought things to a standstill. Schools have been closed for four days in a row, complicating child care and work for many residents. Public transit was shut down Monday. Trash collection was suspended.
The city is bringing on more capacity by pursuing creative arrangements with various local entities, including the school district, private companies and labor unions in what the mayor called an “all hands on deck” approach to speeding up snow removal. That’s included working with the unions to shuffle certified personnel around beyond their typical obligations to meet outstanding needs.
“We have a number of Parks and Rec staff today that have been reassigned to work with the street maintenance crews, so they’ll be primarily focusing on sidewalks, driveways, operating some of our smaller equipment,” said Municipal Manager Amy Demboski. “Our more experienced drivers who are used to driving very large plow equipment will be able to be shuffled back into the mix so we can have as many plows on the street as possible.”
The city is also working on a memorandum of understanding with the Anchorage School District to enlist some of its plow fleet to help with clearing streets, which Demboski expected to be ironed out soon.
Small private plowing and snow hauling businesses are also part of the picture, with the municipality pursuing additional contracts. That includes bringing in side dump trucks from a private firm to haul off snow from downtown, freeing other dump trucks to help with carting elsewhere in town, according to Lance Wilber, Director of the Office of Economic and Community Development.
Crews are having problems with residents parking vehicles on streets and dumping their shoveled snow into right-of-ways.
“We’re seeing a lot of that. That’s gotta stop,” Bronson said.
The piles are slowing down graders and plows, and could necessitate additional hauling — which, Bronson said, could put a strain on snow removal budgets. The fine for dumping snow in a right-of-way is $300 under municipal code.
The city currently has 28 of its 30 graders in operation, after fixing equipment malfunctions that hit part of the fleet last week. Though 60 operators are currently driving rigs for the municipality, Bronson warned that with more snow in the forecast the current pace of plowing might not be sustainable.
“Right now, a week into this, we’re pretty good, but at some point we can’t keep up that tempo,” Bronson said. “The drivers are gonna start needing a day off here and there.”