How nasty Anchorage road conditions thrashed cars, trucks and drivers’ nerves

Last week, as a heavy blanket of snow fell on Anchorage, day care owner Crystal Culp got a call from her daughter. She’d slid into a berm of snow and needed to be picked up.

Culp climbed into her trusty GMC Yukon and slowly started to navigate down from her home on the Anchorage Hillside.

Quickly, she realized the roads she was accustomed to driving in Alaska winter had been transformed into something different: A juddering moonscape of jagged ruts. Somewhere around C Street and Dimond Boulevard the road began to remind her of a roller coaster.

“When it is trucking up the incline — bump, bump, bump,” she said. “It was insane.”

She started to worry about her own vehicle. Culp made it to her daughter, whose car was scratched but fine, cushioned by a wall of snow.

By the time she got home, Culp’s SUV was not fine. Her car had damage to its suspension system and tire pressure. A shock was displaced.

She’s still driving it. “It’s my only source of transportation,” she said.


[In an informal deal, Anchorage mayor sent equipment to clear rutted state roads, leaving many neighborhoods unplowed]

Culp is among many Anchorage drivers who say their vehicles were seriously damaged navigating lamentable road conditions over the past week. More than 70 people responded to a Daily News question to readers about whether their vehicles had been damaged on the roads. The readers described all manner of trouble: Tires popping off, windows shattering, pieces of bumpers left on roadsides.

The poor road conditions contributed to hundreds of vehicle-in-distress calls. The Anchorage Police Department said it had responded to 460 such calls between last Thursday, when the first snowstorm hit, and Wednesday afternoon. Police responded to an additional 94 crashes without injuries and 24 crashes with injuries

Transportation officials agree that it wasn’t your imagination: The roads really were unusually bad, especially last Saturday and Sunday after the initial snowstorm. The worst of the reported conditions were on state-owned and maintained roadways such as C Street, Dimond, A Street and Benson and Northern Lights boulevards.

The first foot-plus of snow fell while the temperature hovered around freezing, said Justin Shelby, regional operations director for the Alaska Department of Transportation. That allowed the snow to set up in icy ruts as cars drove over it, he said. Once the bumpy, icy surface forms, a grader is needed to scrape it, Shelby said. The state mostly owns high-speed plows and doesn’t have many graders in Anchorage, he said, but the municipality does.

Shelby said the amount of snowfall the city got meant it took longer for state plow vehicles to get to it, and some of it hardened into the rock-hard, damaging ice formations that required grading.

Mayor Dave Bronson said the road conditions on the state roads were so bad he ordered city equipment diverted to help clear them. Though the decision delayed neighborhood plowing, Bronson said state roads needed to be safe for emergency vehicles.

Auto repair shops say they’re busy, but not necessarily more than usual this time of year.

Keith Seals said he was thudding down Tudor Road when his window exploded.

“I hit an uneven part of the road in front of Taco Bell which made my entire left passenger window shatter,” he wrote. “Almost made me wreck looking around thinking and wondering what was really happening.”

Ziona Brownlow said she was dropping off friends at the airport when her set of four tires “became a trio.”

“My tire popped on one of the icebergs on Northern Lights that bounced my Jeep and signaled my engine light,” she wrote. Her suspension “didn’t realize it’d be off-roading on the main roads this season.”

The heavily trafficked Northern Lights Boulevard also took out Christine Williams’ husband’s tire. He was near East Anchorage High School when he lost a tire, she wrote. Their Chevrolet Suburban’s lug nuts had “broken in half,” she said.

For days, they were without a working vehicle with no buses running, she said.

It wasn’t the road that damaged Dayle McLeary-Nelson’s Ford F250 truck; it was a snow-laden tree branch. McLeary-Nelson said she was bouncing down the far right lane of 36th Avenue, close to other cars because of huge snow berms on the sides and in the median, when out of nowhere a tree branch punched a “golf ball sized hole” in the plastic of her passenger side mirror and shattered the glass.

A replacement, she said, is going to be at least $300.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.