Residents of Alaska’s biggest city are fine dealing with all sorts of routine hardships: cold, dark, snow, earthquakes, lackluster grocery produce options, the occasional ornery moose or quarrelsome packs of aggressive river otters, even driving across town to the other Costco if the first Costco parking lot’s too crowded.
But there is one thing people in Anchorage will not stand for: traffic problems caused by uncleared snow.
For the last week, there has been a palpable fury and shock rippling across social media. A series of snowstorms and plowing challenges have left many Anchorage roads in poor condition, with many hemmed in by high berms that are swallowing up whole lanes, in some cases. That’s contributed to traffic jams, delays, waits, fender benders, disappearing lanes and last-second swerving to merge traffic when lanes vanish.
“This traffic making me scream!!!!!!!!” one Anchorage driver tweeted.
The city’s infrastructure, for better or worse, is designed around cars and trucks zooming down wide multi-lane arteries on the way to side streets. To the extent there is a “rush hour,” it lasts around 15 minutes, defined by having to wait through a full light cycle to get beyond an intersection. Getting stuck because of a car accident or rock slide or wildfire is appreciable. Idling in a congested wintertime purgatory because snow berms have bottlenecked your three-lane commuting route to a potholed goat trail down Lake Otis Parkway, well, that can feel like a betrayal of Anchorage’s social contract.
Nobody is immune. A few members of the Anchorage Assembly straggled to the dais at the start of their official business on Tuesday night.
“There are some folks who are still caught in traffic, but we will go ahead and get started with the meeting,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance.
Beyond the inconveniences, there are also real dangers. Many of the city’s snow-heaped sidewalks have been out of commission, forcing pedestrians to walk in the road. The Anchorage Police Department has tracked an increase in the number of vehicle-in-distress calls and accidents officers have responded to. That’s normal during big snows, but the high number of crashes and strandings has persisted for more than a week. Making a right turn at many intersections remains risky, with piles of uncleared snow obscuring oncoming traffic. Don’t even bother trying to turn left.
From Dec. 15, the last of the big three snowstorms, through noon on Friday, police have responded to 346 vehicles in distress and 228 collisions, 42 of which involved injuries, according to figures from APD.
Most of this waking nightmare is because of snow. Three back-to-back-to-back snowstorms in December dropped 60% of the city’s average annual accumulation in a little over a week.
“There’s so much snow,” said Justin Shelby, the administrative operations manager for the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which handles snow removal along many of the biggest roadways in the municipality, including the Seward Highway.
In the hours and days following a big snow, state and municipal operators have shifted from the triage work of plowing roads to make them navigable to now widening streets and hauling away tons and tons of snow off to snow dumps, where it is accumulating into ever-growing mounds until the spring melt.
Road conditions are exceptionally bad by Anchorage standards in part because graders ran solo, instead of in teams, to cover more lane-miles as the storms piled atop on another. Sacrificed in that policy was some of the breadth and finesse that comes running the equipment in pairs.
“When we did our initial plow-outs, there were some lane reductions,” Shelby said.
Crews have been trying to shave away bermed-up road shoulders and regain the full breadth of streets, but the work is slow and challenging because of the sheer volume of snow they are contending with.
“In some places there’s nowhere to push it,” Shelby said.
The berms, accumulation and shoveled piles heaped everywhere like frosty toadstools obstruct sightlines for all but the most boosted high-suspension trucks. It is hard to see out driveways and alleys, or around corners, to know if it’s safe to pull out. Up and down busy roads in the city, car hoods perilously poke into oncoming traffic as their drivers assess whether they’re about to get creamed.
“Crews continue to work around the clock to widen the streets and haul snow out of our neighborhoods,” Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said in remarks to the Assembly this week.
“Our street maintenance crews have been working 24/7 for roughly two weeks now. The focus now is on widening residential streets and hauling snow from arterials and collector roads,” Bronson said. “I want to emphasize again that there is no such thing as political snow, that is, red snow or blue snow. It is simply white snow, and it has an impact on all of us. This amount of snow in such a short period of time is unprecedented.”
The mayor has received criticism over the administration’s handling of the snowstorms, including news that officials took little action after hearing this summer about a critical shortage in plow operators within the municipal division in charge of snow removal.
The extent of the December snow walloping is reflected in some of the figures it is generating. The city contracted 15 extra side dump trucks to help with hauling snow from downtown, and as of this week had removed 4,600 loads.
“That’s about 75% of our yearly average, with a lot of winter left to go,” Bronson said.
Nothing is forever, the only constant is change, and even this larger-than-usual accumulation of snow will revert to a familiar norm, though it is taking a little bit longer.
“In general, we’re not complaining,” said Anchorage Fire Department Assistant Chief Alex Boyd. “It’s always a challenge whenever we get big snow falls.”
The fire department’s ladder trucks and ambulances are, like everyone else, having some trouble getting to where they need to go promptly.
“We’re not having any more difficulties than anybody else trying to navigate the roadways,” Boyd said.
“Folks have been pretty good at pulling over and getting out of the way when an apparatus is running through,” he said, adding that if normally roomy roads are down to just a single lane, firefighters won’t run their sirens or lights. “It just goofs up traffic even worse, ends up putting people in the ditch.”
Residential streets present another set of obstacles. Buffered by berms, car owners are parking their vehicles farther and farther into the middle of streets, hindering the fire department’s vehicle access.
“What we’re seeing is a challenge with people,” Boyd said. “That failure to recognize that basically the snow berms have taken up 8 feet on both sides of the road.”
Residents with an interest in helping out first responders, Boyd said, can try not parking vehicles on the street and clearing away fire hydrants.