Expecting higher pandemic traffic, hundreds of Alaskans ask for better Turnagain Pass plowing

The road at Turnagain pass sits at about 1,000 feet of elevation. Up there, winter looks a lot different than it does in Anchorage. Photo: Monica Gokey/APRN.

More than 1,600 Alaskans are asking Governor Mike Dunleavy to restore money for snow plowing in Turnagain Pass, which they say is needed more than ever during the ongoing pandemic.

They also suggest using CARES Act funds, but the state says that’s not allowed.

Last fall, DOT announced reduced snow plowing in the pass, a popular winter recreation area that connects Anchorage and Seward via the Seward Highway, due to the closure of a nearby maintenance station. The department blamed a decline in fuel tax revenue.

Now, a coalition of outdoor recreation businesses, enthusiasts and nonprofits is asking the governor to restore funding for snow plowing in Turnagain Pass to avoid highway closures and safety issues.

Nick D’Alessio, a backcountry guide with his company Remarkable Adventures and a co-author of the letter, said the pandemic is driving a boost to outdoor recreation and parking at trailheads.

“And then also on top of that you have people doing less carpooling, because of social distancing,” D’Alessio said. “So you have more users at trailheads, plus more cars for those users.”

D’Alessio and the other letter writers say a lack of plowing caused the highway to close twice last winter due to snowfall, halting the flow of people and goods between Alaska’s largest city and communities to the south.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s spokesman did not offer a response to the letter and said the next budget was still being crafted.

DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said the department will do its best to plow Turnagain Pass with whatever funds it gets in the budget. Closing the maintenance station in the pass involved having two stations farther away pick up the workload, and DOT is hoping some small changes will improve the situation this year, she said.

“Because we’ve kind of fine-tuned some of our timing and our staffing, a little bit, so we think it’ll be better, and of course this is an area that does receive heavy, wet snow. So it’s always a problem when you get one of these big storms,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said DOT’s position is that it would not be legal to use CARES Act funds for road maintenance like plowing at Turnagain Pass.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.