An ‘absurd ownership mishmash’: How Anchorage road jurisdiction affects snowplowing

The fact that Anchorage streets and roads are split between state and local ownership has long frustrated officials and residents. How did it come to be? Will it change?

Record-breaking snow in November crippled basic government services in Anchorage for days. Schools shuttered for nearly a week. Snow removal on some streets was so shoddy that it left hazardous ice ruts that pummeled drivers and vehicles. Other streets went unplowed for days, leaving residents stranded in their homes and businesses without employees, if they could open at all.

Critics of Mayor Dave Bronson have blamed some of those problems on his administration’s management of city services, and rival candidates in the upcoming municipal elections have quickly used snowplowing as a political cudgel.

But another dynamic has come under renewed scrutiny as well.

One big factor in the city’s struggle to cope with the winter weather is that many of Anchorage’s most vital roads do not belong to the municipality, and aren’t subject to the management of local officials. They belong to the state of Alaska. While the mayor and Assembly have some say in how residential streets and city-owned roadways are maintained, many of the municipality’s busiest traffic corridors are maintained by the state, which works on a parallel track after a major snow event.

After serious snow-removal issues following snowstorms last December, and the new problems after heavy snow last month, some have questioned why the state owns nearly as many miles of roads in Anchorage as the municipality itself — and asked why the state’s resources for plowing out Alaska’s largest city seem relatively small and ill-equipped.

It’s an arrangement that has long frustrated officials and residents. It received renewed attention after an informal deal by Bronson last month to divert municipal resources to help grade ice off state-maintained roads caused some neighborhood streets to go unplowed for days.

Residents don’t necessarily know which streets belong to which entity — it’s a confusing tangle, with some streets under both city and state control depending on the location — and local elected officials complain that they catch all of the blame if busy state roads go unplowed. Sometimes one road will be scraped clean down to the asphalt while another right beside it looks like jumble ice on a frozen river, simply because they fall under distinct jurisdictions.

The situation gets even more complicated at the municipality’s outer edges along the Hillside and throughout Eagle River, where groups of property owners clustered into what are called “service areas” tax themselves to pay for private contractors to maintain their roads.

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s an absurd ownership mishmash,” said Mike Abbott, who served as the city manager under both the Begich and Berkowitz administrations.

So how did such a mishmash come to be? And if nobody thinks it works particularly well, then why hasn’t it been fixed? Will it ever change?

How it got like this

The state owns many of Anchorage’s main roads because it originally paid to build them.

Even before 1975, when the city and borough of Anchorage unified, forming the boundaries and government structure of the municipality as it exists today, it was typically state entities that funded construction of the highways and arterial roads feeding expanding neighborhoods and private developments. As Alaska’s oil economy boomed, the city grew rapidly through the 1980s, and a lot of new roads were built and upgraded.

At the time, residents and local officials didn’t worry much over the question of who would be paying for plowing and maintenance of those streets decades into the future.

“It was state money that built those roads. And local people, maybe even local legislators, said, ‘Well, it’s part of the deal: You pay for the maintenance,’” said Fred Dyson, who served multiple terms on the Anchorage Assembly and represented Eagle River as a Republican in the Legislature. “It was the classic deal: Get somebody else to pay for what benefits me.”

Dyson said that particularly during boom periods when state coffers were bulging with oil revenues, roads were bought and paid for without much consideration as to the long-term financial and maintenance liabilities that go along with heavy infrastructure.

“It’s certainly consistent with most legislatures I’ve been part of — nobody’s looking five years down the road, let alone 10 or 20,” Dyson said.

Anchorage isn’t alone among communities around Alaska with a legacy of overlapping road ownership within city limits. State-owned roads cut through the heart of downtown Fairbanks, the waterfronts of Juneau and Douglas, Nome’s Front Street, and plenty more.

But the discrepancy between state and local plowing performance is a political football in Anchorage, in part because of the sheer scale of the work and resources it takes to do it.

The Anchorage Department of Maintenance and Operations, through its Street Maintenance Division, is responsible for plowing 1,281 lane miles of road, along with another 200 miles of sidewalks and recreational trails. Within those municipal boundaries, the state owns almost the same amount of real estate: 1,187 lane miles, and 160 miles of sidewalks.

In Fairbanks, the state plows 28 miles of the Elliott Highway, 44 miles of the Steese Highway, lengths of the Parks and Richardson highways heading into town, along with Badger, Farmers Loop “and other local roads,” according to the Fairbanks District of DOT’s Northern Region.

ADVERTISEMENT

In Anchorage, the levels of resources allocated for snow removal by the two primary road owners are dramatically different.

In recent years the city has had between 60 and 74 qualified heavy equipment operators on staff for snow removal, split about evenly between a day- and night-shift driving most of the department’s 30 graders.

By contrast, just six operators are driving plows for the state within the Anchorage area on a regular shift (according to the state transportation department’s website, an average shift in the Fairbanks area has nine operators, and Juneau has eight).

It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, though: The state’s highest-priority roads are the long stretches of highway connecting population centers, most of which have no other entity that could feasibly keep them drivable after a storm. Their fleet deals with many more high-speed multi-lane roads that are cleared with heavy-duty plows shooting snow off into shoulders and medians — roads like the Seward Highway, Minnesota Drive and C and A streets. The municipal fleet handles a lot more detail work, grading neighborhood streets and narrow alleys that might have parked cars or other obstacles partially buried under the snow.

But compared to 10 or 20 years ago, both entities are trying to do more work with fewer resources.

The 2009 budget for Anchorage’s Street Maintenance Division had 81 full-time equipment operators and another 12 part-time positions to flex the workforce up if the need arose. In the 2023 operating budget, the division had a total of 76 full-time equipment operators budgeted, and just six part-time positions. Those reductions don’t account for job vacancies, which have been a problem in Alaska’s public workforce during recent years.

ADVERTISEMENT

Years of cutting state budgets have reduced the Alaska Department of Transportation to just 27 equipment operators in Anchorage.

“Like other state agencies, DOT&PF now receives fewer general fund (state) dollars than it did prior to the downturn in the economy in 2015. Our maintenance budget in (the) Central Region was reduced by 27% and we lost 15 positions in recent years, with over half of these positions from the Anchorage area,” according to a frequently asked questions page put together by the department.

The state transportation department has largely responded to those cuts by moving toward a prioritization system for plowing its roads, focusing on highways first before moving down to arterial roadways in Anchorage.

[ADN Politics podcast: Snowplow politics, revisited]

Debate over ownership

People in Anchorage have long questioned whether the joint custody arrangement over the municipality’s roads makes sense. The barrier to fixing it is money.

“There’s not a good reason (for it),” said Abbott, “except that it is hard to move away from it now that it is entrenched.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The two options for unifying maintenance authority over Anchorage’s roads would be an ownership transfer, or the state essentially paying Anchorage to take care of assets it still formally owns.

When Dyson first served on the Assembly in the mid-1980s, he tried to get the municipality to take control of state-owned roads under a deal where the state would pay the costs of upkeep for around five years. But, he recalled, some local elected officials didn’t trust the state to keep its word, so nothing happened.

“They kicked the ball down the road instead of dealing with it,” Dyson said.

The issue came up again during the Berkowitz administration. Abbott said there were talks with Gov. Bill Walker’s administration, but they never went very far.

“It came down to money,” Abbott said. “We wanted to at least think that we were close on the money before we started working on all the other million details ... and we never got close.”

If the city were to take over all of the state’s roads, it would be assuming a major financial liability, with both significant annual costs and future capital obligations, but with no new revenue source to pay for any of it, Abbott said. It would mean roughly doubling the number of lane miles to plow every winter — not to mention maintenance the rest of the year — but with the exact same property-tax base.

“The roads themselves don’t pay taxes,” Abbott said. “Anchorage’s current tax base would have to assume the liability for both maintenance and capital.”

For homeowners in most of the city, that would mean a higher tax bill that buys basically the same level of service they currently receive.

ADVERTISEMENT

The other option would be what’s called a Transfer of Responsibility Agreement, or TORA, where the state outsources road work through annual payments in its operating budget. Under that arrangement, state dollars would go toward muni-owned operators and equipment, who would handle clearing snow, filling potholes and whatever else needs doing on state-owned roads as if they were city assets.

There is precedent for this. The state and municipality have 41 TORAs in place, according to a 2021 city audit, including a street maintenance program in Eagle River. But none of them are at the scale of what it would cost for the state to outsource upkeep of all its roads within city boundaries. The full amount transferred in 2020 to cover costs under TORAs, for things like the city operating the traffic lights on state-owned roads and conducting annual traffic counts, was $2,149,819.

But even if state lawmakers were willing to pay Anchorage to take care of its roads inside the municipality, some of the same trepidation over dependability that gave Dyson’s peers pause in the ‘80s remains today.

• • •

An interactive map on the city’s website, below, shows jurisdiction over streets and roads in Anchorage.

• • •

“The amount of money you get from the state is subject to appropriation every year. So it’s not a guarantee,” said John Weddleton, who worked closely on road and service area issues while serving two terms on the Anchorage Assembly.

He also pointed to changing fiscal priorities from one governor to another. Weddleton noted that after budget vetoes by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the state abruptly stopped its school bond debt reimbursement payments that the Anchorage School District and others had long counted on.

Veronica Hoxie, a spokesperson for Mayor Dave Bronson, did not provide answers to detailed questions about any ongoing conversations on road ownership transfers. In a text message, she wrote that “the municipality and Alaska Department of Transportation will continue discussions about how we can work more collaboratively during record snowfall events going forward.”

Weddleton said Anchorage is hardly unique among American cities and metropolitan areas for having a mix of federal, state and local roads all crisscrossing within the same area and presenting jurisdictional challenges. But it is a relatively young city, with unification and major growth spurts happening within less than a half-century.

“We are not so much a city as a conglomeration of service areas,” Weddleton said.

• • •

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

ADVERTISEMENT