If you’ve been driving in Anchorage during the past week, you’ve seen them: pedestrians in the roadway, slogging along the side of the plowed lane in dangerous proximity to passing traffic. Every time you see it, it’s jarring; even with the chaos of erratic, snowed-in lanes and cars with poor traction getting stuck at intersections, seeing a person walking inches away from passing vehicles sends a spike of adrenaline.
Few people would engage in such a dangerous activity by choice, and there’s a perfectly natural reason for it: The sidewalks, in many places, are impassible. And when you have to go somewhere — to work, or for groceries — and don’t have a car, you take the option you’re left with: walking on the road.
But why weren’t the sidewalks cleared? And, for that matter, why have snow-clearing efforts been so obviously unable to keep pace with the snowstorms of the past two weeks?
There’s not one single answer, of course. The three feet of snow Anchorage received to cap its highest-precipitation year on record were an unusual event. Labor market forces have resulted in more vacancies among the plow operators than usual. And nearly one-third of the municipality’s plow fleet was out of service at the beginning of the storm. As for the sidewalks, all three of the state Department of Transportations’ sidewalk plows are inoperable, according to Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transit System Policy Committee chair Wolfgang Junge, resulting in the department needing to borrow one from Fairbanks.
Even three sidewalk plows, were they all in service, seems like a woeful number to service state-maintained pedestrian facilities in a city of nearly 300,000. And DOT’s current maintenance budget summary spells the situation out plainly. In a section titled “Key component challenges,” it noted: “Low (employee) counts make managing long winter schedules difficult, threaten continuity of operations at airports, lower the overall level of service provided by (Maintenance and Operations), and decrease the capture of federal funds for summer maintenance programs. Reduced ability to replace aging equipment on schedule is leading to increased equipment ‘downtime’ and excessive maintenance costs which exceed replacement costs.”
A little further along, the budget summary noted that the department has been getting an earful from Alaskans, citing an “unrealistic expectation that maintenance will be provided at the same level as 10 years ago. This expectation is simply unrealistic given budget cuts, personnel reductions and increases in facilities which must be maintained.”
None of this was inevitable, of course. Every budget is made up of choices, and among the choices made in the current budget year was paying out $3,284 to each person who lived in Alaska for all of 2021. That adds up to $2.1 billion total, the biggest such allocation in the state’s history. And although that check was welcomed by all who received it, the huge payout was also a choice in what not to fund. Even a fraction of that $2.1 billion could have covered dramatically better snow removal, continued operation of neighborhood schools and a host of other services.
Every year, via our representatives in Juneau and what we tell them to prioritize, we make choices about what we want the next year to look like. Do we want to keep the ferries running? Do we want to combat Alaska’s epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence? Do we want sidewalk plows and the people who operate them, or are we willing to make people walk in traffic in the name of a bigger check in October?
And if, God forbid, someone gets hit this year, are we going to make the same choice next year?