State’s nitwitted snowmachines-on-roads plan begs for an investigation

While unmitigated government boobism seems de rigueur nowadays, somebody in the administration of Gov. Michael Dunleavy is proposing ATVs, snowmachines and “all-purpose vehicles” be allowed on public roads with speed limits up to 45 mph, further raising the bar on nitwittery.

To compound this crime against good sense, news reports say the administration refuses to identify the idea’s author, the agency seeking it or the whozits and whatzits involved. There apparently was little-to-no analysis offered and apparently there were no consultations with knowledgeable interested groups and communities ahead of time.

The news media? They dutifully reported the administration’s refusal to disclose — and then, crickets.

As a cranky, card-carrying member of the “get off my lawn” generation, the notion of politicians, or their underlings, blowing off reporters and escaping unscathed is nothing short of mind-boggling. It is difficult to know whether we should be more disappointed in an administration where transparency, always a question and now seemingly out the window, or news-gathering operations, which seemingly tolerate such behavior.

There was a time when reporters and editors would have gone hammer-and-tong nuts over the Dunleavy administration’s refusal to identify the proposal’s author. There would have been story after story, followed by caustic editorials and columns decrying the secrecy and demanding answers. No prisoners. No quarter. Public officials often paid a hefty price for hubris, arrogance and secrecy. You could ask former rising — then fallen — star Democratic presidential challenger Gary Hart.

Those days are past. That there is disdain in Alaska’s officialdom for the media comes as no real surprise. And why not? Not too long ago, an Anchorage police chief secretly was suspended for two weeks without pay and the public was not told for years, until it was divulged accidentally in a lawsuit.

You have to wonder why the Dunleavy administration is protecting whoever started the ball rolling on a public comment period that expires April 18 for this latest round of nuttery. Officials say they will not identify whose idea it was until after the comment period closes.

At first glance, allowing the vehicles on public roads is a lousy idea of the nth magnitude. Nathan Belz, an associate professor in civil engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a student of rural transportation issues for nearly two decades, is asking the proposed changes be withdrawn. He says in his assessment of the proposed “poorly crafted” changes that they are “directly contrary to the Alaska Strategic Highway Safety Plan developed by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.”

There is no age limit mentioned in the proposed changes posted by the Department of Public Safety. They do not even define what an “”all purpose vehicle” might be. Nobody seems sure whether the changes are aimed at rural Alaska, where snowmobiles are a necessary way of life and used as basic transportation, or urban roads and thoroughfares. Nobody seems sure of anything except that major safety groups oppose the idea.

As it stands now, ATVs, snowmobiles and whatever the heck “all purposes vehicles” might be are banned from roadways in many localities such as Anchorage, except to cross or avoid culverts and such.

That is for very good reason. The machines involved are not meant for highway travel, especially on paved roads. They lack safety equipment, offer little-to-no protection for riders or drivers and their size makes them certain losers in a collision with a car, or, heaven forbid, a truck.

Imagine streets in some communities, in areas such as the Mat-Su Borough, or Kenai Peninsula or Fairbanks, with 45 mph speed limits. Many of those roads, in large part, are busy thoroughfares. Now imagine a 15-year-old yahoo on a snowmachine blasting in and out of traffic with great abandon during rush hour. In the dark. On ice. With visibility virtually nil. What possibly could go wrong?

Having been one of those young yahoos — lights out, high-speed motorcycle blitzes down dark Florida country roads — there is no doubt in my mind the already too-high injury and fatality statistics for younger Alaskans riding off-road vehicles would soar.

Alaskans are being asked to comment on a serious policy change that could have tragic implications without even being told the who or the why of it. How are we to judge for ourselves the goal and motives involved? Accurate, timely information is a linchpin in the public process. When government resorts to secrecy, many of us are left to rightly wonder: What is it hiding? Why is it doing this?

In times past, we could count on a nosy, determined press to pry answers out of recalcitrant officials protecting their own. Nowadays, in too many instances, we are just left to wonder.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

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