EDITORIAL: Let’s be honest about what’s going on with snow removal

There has been plenty of finger-pointing about who or what is to blame for prolonged delays in dealing with snow and ice buildup on Anchorage-area roads this winter. In one camp are folks eager to pin every failure on Mayor Dave Bronson (or, if the road in question is maintained by the state — which can be difficult to determine — Gov. Mike Dunleavy), who insist that plow-out difficulties didn’t exist before this administration or, if they did, were no one’s particular fault. Then there are the mayor and governor’s defenders, who say that big snow dumps are the culprit, not administrative incompetence or reduced plowing capacity. They say that funding more plows and the crews to staff them is an unnecessary expense, and that we shouldn’t maintain equipment for storms that are relatively infrequent.

So who’s right?

Well, no one has a corner on being 100% right. The mayor and governor’s supporters are correct that although we’ve had two years in a row with major early winter snowstorms that overwhelmed plow capacity, there’s some amount of bad luck in that — such storms aren’t usually an every-year phenomenon. And with a sample size of two years, there’s not enough data to declare this a “new normal” that we should expect every winter. And although the mayor’s decision to send plows to aid state crews on arterial roads instead of beginning neighborhood plow-outs has been second-guessed by many, it does make sense to clear larger, higher-traffic roads before residential streets.

That said, the fact that past administrations have also occasionally struggled with clearing snow doesn’t entirely excuse what’s going on now — the truth at the center of the argument of the mayor’s and governor’s detractors is that although storms like this have happened before (and will again), what has changed is that the plowing capacity of the municipality and state has been hollowed out by a couple of major factors.

One factor is a tight labor market coupled with pay rates for plow operators that don’t match what they can make in the private sector driving the same rig. This results in driver vacancies that are difficult to fill and harder to keep filled, as many experienced operators inevitably move to a position where they can make more money.

The second factor, which is particularly significant for the state’s road maintenance, is that for the past half-decade, Dunleavy and his administration’s service cuts— in service of big Permanent Fund dividend distributions — have diminished the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ ability to keep up with winter road maintenance. This reality was plainly stated in the Alaska DOT maintenance budget summary for fiscal 2023, months before last year’s December storms would make its words prophetic: “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.” Performing maintenance to the same standard as a decade ago, the summary noted, “is simply unrealistic given budget cuts, personnel reductions and increases in facilities which must be maintained.”

Given the budget actions of the governor, it’s clear that the priority isn’t efficiency or “right-sizing” — it’s simply to reduce services so that more money is available to pay out PFDs. With reduced oil production, and thus reduced oil tax revenue, we can no longer have our cake and get our roads plowed promptly, too, so Dunleavy has chosen cake over plows. It would be one thing if the governor were honest about that tradeoff with Alaskans — “put some of that extra PFD money toward hiring a private plow or paying to repair your vehicle when you damage your undercarriage on the icy ruts on C Street” — but there is a sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation continuing to play out in the Capitol in which the governor, and a substantial chunk of the Legislature, persist in pretending that cost of big PFDs (close to $1 billion this year and about $5.3 billion total since Gov. Dunleavy first took office) is cuts in services that Alaskans, over the decades, have come to expect.

If Alaska leaders support the kind of minimalist government our governor is triangulating toward, in which the state functions as a kind of pass-through entity that gives residents checks they use to pay for the services government used to provide, that’s a vision they should have the guts to try and sell to Alaskans (although extensive revisions to the Alaska Constitution would be necessary). But it’s not fundamentally honest to let voters persist in thinking that the state can continue to provide the services it did a decade ago while also maximizing the size of the PFD - there simply isn’t enough money for both. Anyone who drove on state roads in Anchorage in the month of November could see it with their own two eyes — and feel it as their vehicle bumped in and out of the packed, rutted ice.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.