Bethel highway repair begins as warm winter destroys state roads across Alaska

Drivers navigate the potholed road in front of the Ravn Air terminal in Bethel on March 28, 2018. (Photo by Amara Freeman/ KYUK)

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The state is about to go to work responding to Bethel’s pothole predicament. Starting Thursday, the Department of Transportation will begin repairing Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway. The warm winter has wreaked similar havoc on highways across Alaska.

They’ll start by ripping down into the Bethel highway’s most heavily damaged areas between City Hall and Brown’s Slough.

“What we’re going to do is mill it up; we’re gonna shape it and get it in good shape. It’ll be more of a gravel/recycled asphalt product,” Shannon McCarthy, Department of Transportation spokesperson, explained.

The road will stay in that condition with the city grading the product until the entire highway is repaved next summer in 2019. DOT will fill the rest of the highway potholes with recycled asphalt. The DOT has a small stockpile of the material in Bethel and has brought it indoors to thaw.

The road’s destruction happened quickly.

“We’ve been trying to keep up with the potholes, and obviously they’re forming faster than we can keep up,” McCarthy said.

Over the past month, Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway has crumbled into a cratered moonscape. It’s the same story all over the state. The problem is how warm this winter has been. Instead of temperatures dropping below freezing and staying there, they’ve been fluctuating above and below that point for months.

“We didn’t used to get that freeze/thaw [in] November, December, January, February. And we’re getting more of that,” McCarthy said. “And unfortunately, that contributes to that potholing that we get in the spring.”

This issue has been escalating for years as winters have grown warmer, forcing the state to spend more money on road maintenance. The DOT is paying for the Bethel repairs with a $70,000 emergency procurement. Even so, the DOT expects more potholes to form once they’re done. The roads are still wet; there’s plenty more snow to melt; and the freeze/thaw cycle is continuing.

Last week KYUK reported that the DOT’s webpage for reporting potholes did not list contacts for any Western Alaska communities. This week the DOT is adding an email address for anyone in the state to use to report a pothole:

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.