In the glare of a bluebird March afternoon, Rodger Wilber motored his power wheelchair through lanes of traffic on Anchorage’s Fireweed Lane.
The sight was startling. Trucks driving 35 miles per hour roared past him, spitting dirty snowmelt, as he calmly headed toward the Chevron a half-mile away to run an errand.
Wilber didn’t have much of a choice. The sidewalks were at best glazed with bumpy ice and at worst covered with a rubble of plowed snow, creating lurching berms and impassable piles.
Even in the mildest of winters, Anchorage can be a brutal city to get around with a mobility device such as a wheelchair. But this winter, with record snowfall and widespread problems with snow removal and clearing, sidewalks remain in poor shape — leaving people like Wilber with no safe place to travel.
The situation is “bleak,” said Eric Gurley, the executive director of Access Alaska, an organization that advocates for people who experience disabilities. “There is no access,” Gurley said. “It’s a real hardship. It’s a shame.”
Inaccessible streets and sidewalks leave people “trapped and isolated,” he said.
Wilber has felt that way.
A matter-of-fact 55-year-old with American flag-emblazoned prosthetic legs and a wry sense of humor, he’s a former commercial diver from Sitka. He spent much of his younger life underwater, descending to the ocean floor to pluck geoducks and sea urchins alongside his father, also a diver.
Five years ago, diabetes complications led to double amputations below the knees. He moved to Anchorage to undergo kidney dialysis, and has been living at Catholic Social Services’ Complex Care facility at Fireweed Lane and A Street for about six months.
Wilber said he values a life of independence and freedom, which means getting outside under his own power whenever he can.
In the summer and fall, that wasn’t so hard. He made long treks around Anchorage in his wheelchair, taking it miles away to dialysis appointments and to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. It was never easy — sidewalks and trails often featured cracks and heaves of concrete. But it was worth it. Being on the coastal trail reminded him of Sitka.
“I just wanted to smell that saltwater ocean smell,” he said.
When winter came on, Wilber found his freedom seriously curtailed. The sidewalks adjacent to the Complex Care facility at Fireweed Lane and C Street were so covered in snow and ice that he got stuck a few times, and started carrying a mini shovel on his chair. Wilber is far from alone in using a mobility device to get around. The majority of the residents at Complex Care use some kind of mobility aid, said Jessie Talivaa, a manager.
Wilber started spending more time in his room, watching TV or sleeping. A feeling of imprisonment set in. For a man who says he feels more comfortable underwater than on land, being stuck inside was painful.
“If it gets so bad that I can’t go out, it just drives me nuts,” he said. “I lay on my bed and I watch TV.”
Now he takes his chances, gearing up in a fluorescent construction jacket and driving his wheelchair, which tops out at 6 mph, directly in the road if he has to. Once, on Northern Lights Boulevard, a truck hit him at slow speed, knocking him from his wheelchair. He had to get a new one.
Snow and ice on the sidewalk might be an inconvenience to some, but for a person who uses a wheelchair, walker or a cane or who experiences limited mobility, it’s a “complete barrier to transportation,” said Leslie Jaehning, an attorney with the Disability Law Center of Alaska.
Sidewalks that remain uncleared are a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jaehning said: The ADA, a landmark law that ensures people experiencing disabilities have the same access to public facilities, buildings and businesses as everyone else, specifically says that communities have to maintain existing sidewalks for accessibility.
Public agencies must “maintain … walkways in an accessible condition, with only isolated or temporary interruptions in accessibility.” Part of that obligation includes “reasonable snow removal efforts.”
The “reasonable efforts” language is key, Jaehning said: There’s no specific time frame in which municipalities must remove snow.
[Set to start this summer, $130M Seward Highway project in South Anchorage faces renewed scrutiny]
In Anchorage, the streets and sidewalks are managed by a patchwork of agencies, with some falling under the city’s responsibility and some under the state of Alaska.
The Municipality of Anchorage has said clearing sidewalks and access to bus routes is among its highest priorities after a storm. All sidewalks and bus stops were cleared within two weeks of the December snowstorms, said Paul VanLandingham, a city street maintenance manager.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is responsible for maintaining many of the major thoroughfares in Anchorage, including A Street, C Street and Fireweed Lane, along with about 40 miles of sidewalk. Some of those roads, including Fireweed Lane, have sidewalks that have languished uncleared the longest.
The Department of Transportation has an “aspirational goal” of having “all sidewalks open at all times,” said Kirk Warren, the director of maintenance for the Southcentral region.
But the department has limited equipment and crew members to get the job done, Warren said. And some of the older roadways were designed with narrow sidewalks that aren’t the 5-foot width now required, making clearing that much more difficult.
In 2013, the department bought eight sidewalk snowblowers through a grant. But sidewalk snowblowers are “maintenance intensive” — they break a lot — in part due to trash on sidewalks that can foul up the machinery. Only four of the blowers still work, Warren said, and it’s common for two to be in the shop for repairs at any given time. That leaves a lot of sidewalk without much of the specialized equipment needed to clear it.
Fireweed Lane is known as a particularly tough area, according to Warren: The pathways were built and are old and undersized because of encroachments like utility poles. A long-planned reconstruction of Fireweed Lane to fix some of the issues is in the works, but won’t happen for years.
The department sent an ADA compliance officer to look at Fireweed Lane sidewalk conditions in response to photos shared by the Daily News documenting the condition of the area, said Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the department.
The compliance officer found that the sidewalks were “glaciated” because of spring melt-off from surrounding properties. That’s not something the department has the ability to clear, and is not an ADA violation, McCarthy said.
McCarthy said the department wants to provide better service for Anchorage roadways it manages.
“This year — because of back-to-back storms, we were left frustrated,” she said. “And I think public was left frustrated and wanting.”
Meanwhile, people like Wilber have weeks and months to go before getting around is easier. People “have the right to lead independent lives,” said Gurley, the leader of Access Alaska. And the freedom to move is essential to that, he said.
For Wilber, that means taking a calculated risk. Tomorrow, he’ll gear up again and travel the only place he can until the snow melts, a lane of traffic on an Anchorage road.