Residents and businesses in Southcentral Alaska are urging state officials to increase funding for winter road maintenance and plowing along the Seward Highway in the popular Turnagain Pass area.
A petition organized by outdoor recreation stakeholders and signed by more than 1,600 people and businesses was sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently, asking him to increase plowing at the pass including pullouts, citing an anticipated uptick in outdoor recreation this season during the pandemic and the critical, sole land link the highway provides between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.
Last year, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities closed the Silvertip Maintenance Station — located where the Hope and Seward highways meet — as the agency’s budget shrank. The stretch of road the Silvertip station served was split between maintenance stations in Girdwood to the north and Crown Point, near Moose Pass, to the south.
The 30-mile stretch previously covered by the Silvertip station included Turnagain Pass, a popular spot for backcountry skiing and snowmachining.
Outdoor advocates, ski guides and safety officials within the region say the change in services has made the region less safe for drivers and first responders and decreased access to public lands. The petition began circulating several weeks ago and was sent to Dunleavy on Oct. 23.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to recommend to Dunleavy that there be immediate maintenance additions along the impacted portion of the Seward Highway and that a sustainable budget needs to be developed to prioritize roadways.
After the Silvertip station’s closure last year, DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon publicly responded to concerns and said the department acted to insulate the public from budget cuts. The department’s budget has consistently shrunk, and the Silvertip station was the fourth to close in as many years.
DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said by phone Wednesday that the department learned how to manage the area from the other maintenance stations last winter, and she expects that will help them better maintain the highway this winter. The transportation department would like to reopen the Silvertip station, but McCarthy said it would first have to consider how any additional money could be best used to benefit the state.
“At this point, we have more needs than we have resources, so we do have to be very judicial if we did get additional money,” she said. “We’d really have to be careful and thoughtful about where we would add it.”
The petition recommends that officials look at funding the maintenance through the CARES Act, through which money was granted to the state by the federal government for pandemic relief, or emergency state funds. Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said over email that it’s unlikely the maintenance would qualify for CARES Act funding because of federal guidelines. The governor’s office has received the letter but had not responded to it, he said Wednesday.
Nick D’Alessio, who helped pen the petition letter to Dunleavy, said maintenance along the Seward Highway dropped last year and at times made Turnagain Pass inaccessible. D’Alessio is a backcountry guide, and he owns Remarkable Adventures and co-owns the Alaska Guide Collective, both based in Girdwood.
Conditions along the Seward Highway have wavered over the years as DOT’s budget continuously shrank, D’Alessio said, but until last year, he felt the conditions had still been manageable.
The petition references dangerous situations caused by a lack of plowing last winter and two times when the highway was completely shut down. D’Alessio said there were also several days last winter when he reached Turnagain Pass, his vehicle loaded with gear and clients, but he had to turn back to Girdwood and forgo a day of paid work because the parking lots were blocked by about 6 feet of snow pushed from the roadway.
"Besides money, we’ve got people that are from the state of Alaska or from other states, or even people from around the world, that are coming specifically to Alaska to Turnagain Pass because it has some of the best skiing in the entire world,” he said.
Parks throughout Alaska saw a significant increase in visitors over the summer as fewer Alaskans traveled out of state and many looked for outdoor activities that would be safe during the pandemic. D’Alessio said he and other guides are expecting a similar uptick in winter recreation, and he’s already seen a drastic increase in the number of people registering to take avalanche safety courses. Plus, social distancing means fewer people will be carpooling to Turnagain Pass, which D’Alessio said places more pressure on having pullouts and lots cleared for cars.
With more people outdoors, Girdwood Fire Chief Michelle Weston said, she worries there could be an additional need for emergency services in the area.
Safe, clear roadways are essential for first responders to reach someone who needs help as quickly as possible, she said.
The Girdwood Fire Department responds to incidents on the Seward Highway from around Bird Creek to Mile 60, just before the turnoff to Hope. Weston said many responses are a collaborative effort by multiple agencies, though, and they all rely on the same highway. She said the nearest extraction tool, used to cut people out of vehicle wreckage, comes from Seward. Other emergency response services, like those in Cooper Landing or Moose Pass, drive through an even longer stretch of the highway to get patients to a medical clinic.
Weston said poor weather always slows response time, but when road maintenance isn’t able to keep up, the delay is even longer, which can cost lives. Poor road conditions also endanger her own crew members.
“We want to go rescue and save everybody that we can,” she said. “Just like any firefighter, our firefighters are very mission driven and they will do anything to get to somebody who’s hurt and injured, regardless of the safety impact to themselves.”
Weston recalled whiteout conditions during a New Year’s storm last year and how first responders struggled to reach patients, who waited more than an hour and a half — double the typical response time — for responders to reach them. Thick snow prevented drivers from seeing where the road was.
“There’s nothing more frightening than being in the back of the ambulance with a patient and looking out the window and nobody knowing where you are on the highway," said Weston, who has been with the department for about 23 years.
Weston said she’s thankful for the hardworking plow drivers who are doing their best to cover more ground, but she said it doesn’t have to be this way.
“The state, I think, should have highway maintenance — especially one highway for access to all of the the Kenai Peninsula — as a priority for them,” she said.