Days after two heavy winter storms walloped Anchorage, some elected leaders are questioning an informal deal that sent municipal snow removal equipment to clear the city’s state-owned roads as many residential streets remained barely navigable.
Responding to abysmal conditions across many of the state-owned roads, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration made an informal deal with Alaska’s top transportation official to lend municipal equipment and personnel to help clear some of the busiest traffic corridors.
Bronson said Wednesday he believes the city was adequately prepared.
“We were ready. I would say the state was unprepared,” Bronson said, adding, “I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus.”
“We were ahead of our timeline Friday afternoon,” Bronson said. “…And then we had to do a bit of a reset to help the state, and then we got another storm.”
As city crews over the weekend graded down thick, dangerous sheets of ice that had formed on state roads, plowing on many city-maintained residential streets lagged.
Bronson acknowledged that diverting city equipment and workers to help the state “delayed us a bit in the neighborhoods. But it was a matter of public safety. I can’t have ambulances breaking axles.”
Ryan Anderson, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, called it “an emergency situation.”
“We had to get this done quickly,” Anderson said Wednesday, adding the state is planning to reimburse the city for the services it provided on state-owned roads.
An official memorandum of understanding is forthcoming, he said.
Jeff Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, declined to say whether the governor believes that the state was prepared for this year’s snow events and referred questions to a spokesperson for the transportation department.
Some members of the Anchorage Assembly are questioning the arrangement, in part because details of how, exactly, the work will be paid for remain unclear.
They are also frustrated that the agreement pulled city equipment away from many neighborhoods and residential streets, causing serious problems for residents in areas that have not seen a plow in days.
“They are super upset,” said Assembly member Karen Bronga of her constituents on the east side of Anchorage.
“I asked for permission for my guys to plow the road”
The municipality is responsible for 1,281 lane-miles of city roads and about 200 miles of sidewalks and trails. The state maintains other stretches of road, including many major thoroughfares such as Dimond Boulevard, Raspberry Road, Northern Lights and Benson boulevards, along with many others.
The city had finished clearing its arterial and collector roads and moved onto plowing residential areas on Friday at noon, Bronson said. But the administration was hearing from residents and city employees that state-owned major roads were bad — “washboard ruts,” Bronson said.
State roads were so rough in some areas that city street maintenance crews couldn’t get into residential areas to plow.
“At that point, thereafter, I drove around a bit. I contacted state DOT and I asked for permission for my guys to plow the road,” said Bronson.
When the next storm hit early Monday, the city pivoted to again clear major roads.
“I know the narrative out there is that we failed. We didn’t. We just had an extra challenge of 38 inches in a week — less than a week — of very wet snow. We had to assist with the state,” Bronson said.
But the risk of having clear arterial roadways and collector streets at the expense of navigable neighborhoods is that many people can’t get out of their driveways to use them, said Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel.
“We concentrate on these main roads, but the neighborhoods are really where it starts to impact people in really acute ways: missed work and school. And I think that if resources are diverted from that effort in order to help the state out, I think that might have been a miscalculation,” Zaletel said.
Assembly member Bronga grew up in East Anchorage. On Monday night, she said, she and her husband shoveled out eight marooned drivers in their neighborhood and saw some 20 people stuck on Pioneer Drive, including a mail truck.
“I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” Bronga said.
Many of the neighborhoods and side streets off of Muldoon had not been plowed at all, she said. In addition to schools being closed, she said she’d received a steady stream of complaints from residents about difficulties getting to work, leaving their homes, or running basic errands.
“Honest to God these are the people who can’t afford the big, high fatty truck and the studded tires and all-wheel drives,” Bronga said. “They’ve got little low-rider cars and beater-mobiles, or they ride the bus and the buses are being canceled.”
“It really looks like inequity to me,” she added.
Bronson said he believes he made the right decision. The administration helped the state because people couldn’t safely get to work, the grocery store or school, he said.
“That’s why we helped the state — so we could get to the grocery store,” Bronson said.
Tight on labor, tall on snow
Two variables are compounding Anchorage’s ongoing problems digging out: labor and weather.
The first of the two snow dumps created exceptionally bad road conditions — the city received about half of what typically falls in a whole winter, and the wet, heavy accumulation in the first storm snarled plans for the cleanup.
That is particularly true for the state’s plowing operations, which specialize in high-speed removal along multi-lane roadways.
The initial snowfall happened with the temperature hovering around freezing, said Justin Shelby, Alaska DOT regional operations director. That allowed the snow to set up in icy ruts as cars drove over it.
Shelby added the amount of snowfall the city got meant it took longer for state plow vehicles to get to it, and some of it hardened into the bumpy, damaging ice formations that require a grader to scrape.
The state doesn’t have many graders in Anchorage, Shelby said, but the municipality does.
“Most of our plow equipment is high-speed plows,” he said.
In terms of staffing, the state’s vacancy rate among equipment operators in the Anchorage region is presently around 14%, said Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for the state transportation department. That is fairly standard for the department, she said, and did not affect the state’s response.
Typically, McCarthy said, winter weather events like last week’s are localized, but that particular storm was spread over an area equivalent to the state of New York, which meant jurisdictions all over Southcentral Alaska were contending with similar conditions and could not borrow capacity from each other.
“It was so system-wide there was no ability to move equipment around,” McCarthy said.
In Anchorage, the city is staffed to handle smaller snow totals.
“The city isn’t designed to get two-and-a-half feet of snow, it’s just not,” said Jason Alward, vice-president of the union that represents local snow removal equipment operators. “Unless you had a 120-man crew you’re not going to succeed.”
That is significantly fewer than the personnel on hand in the city’s road maintenance division, which has shrunk over time, even as the number of roads, sidewalks, and recreational trails in the municipality has continued to increase.
“The fact of the matter is, 25 years ago the department had 94 people in it. And today we have 74 people. Do the math,” Alward said. “No single mayor was to blame. They expected the same and more work to be done with less people.”
The city now supplements road maintenance with private contracts.
After a similar situation last winter of back-to-back snowstorms, Bronson recently updated the plow plan to include a snow emergency response, allowing the city to quickly use private resources. The mayor last week declared a snow emergency and set that response in motion.
Alward said while the municipality is not experiencing the same high vacancy rate it grappled with last year among certified heavy equipment operators, even if every position were filled, it would still be a leaner department than what residents paid for a generation ago, he said.
It’s a similar situation for the state, according to Jordan Adams, business manager for the union covering DOT’s plow drivers.
“Look at the operating budget for the state of Alaska,” Adams said, pointing out that state leaders have reduced the department’s overall budget over the last 10 years, resulting in fewer heavy equipment operators on the payroll.
The state, municipalities, and private companies are all competing for the same pool of labor, which is a challenge for recruitment and retention efforts.
“We’re all bartering over the same skill set,” Adams said. “The state has to be more competitive to just even retain the folks they do have.”
“There’s nothing in writing”
Anderson, the state transportation commissioner, said the recent arrangements with the city to use their capacity for road work came about informally.
He added that reimbursement could either be through in-kind services or a financial agreement.
According to McCarthy, as of Wednesday, the state was back to normal doing maintenance on its own roads.
Assembly Chair Chris Constant said he was alarmed the municipality would agree to send equipment and operators to handle clearing state roads without getting firm details in place first.
“There’s nothing in writing,” he said.
While members of the Assembly were told the state is committed to paying the municipality back, Constant said essential information is missing, such as the rates of hourly compensation.
Zaletel said, “Did we help (the state) out with contractors or did we help them with our own personnel? If we helped them with contractors, I sure hope we have an agreement in place so they’ll reimburse us.”
“If we helped them with our own personnel, I think that’s actually maybe more alarming because we weren’t fully dug out. We hadn’t had a full residential snow removal by the time we were helping someone else do their work. And that seems like an odd set of priorities,” she said.
Bronson said he empathizes with residents’ frustrations over road conditions and four days of remote learning at the school district in less than a week.
“I know you want to get to work, you want to get your life into its normal sequence: drop off the kids, go to work, pick up the kids, drive home,” Bronson said. “But when you get 38 inches of wet snow – again, look around – all this snow that we’re looking at six days ago wasn’t here. And now we’re dealing with it.”
The ADN’s Iris Samuels and Michelle Theriault Boots contributed reporting.
This story originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.