Anchorage leaders reexamine snow removal, question ‘new norm’

A man uses a snow blower on his driveway.
George Cromer, a teacher at Airport Heights Elementary, took a break from remote learning to blow snow off his driveway in Anchorage on Nov.13, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s largest city has been paralyzed by record snowfalls twice in the past 12 months. Now, Anchorage leaders are exploring how to adjust as extraordinary winter weather becomes more common.

Human-caused climate change is making extreme rain and snow more likely, though not necessarily more predictable. City and state officials are trying to make better plans for clearing snow from Anchorage’s streets, but the unpredictable nature of big snowstorms over the long term makes it difficult to know how much equipment and personnel – and how much to spend on them – is appropriate.

“We’ve had two record snowfalls in the last year,” said Sean Holland, head of the Alaska Department of Transportation’s central region, during an Anchorage Assembly Enterprise and Utility Oversight Committee meeting on Wednesday. “And so the question is, is that gonna be the norm?”

Both state and city administrators said there’s room for improvement, but they’re reluctant to scale up their snow removal operations. They said constituents probably don’t have the appetite to pay for enough in-house crews to promptly deal with record storms, like last month’s, which dumped more than 3 feet of heavy, wet snow on Anchorage over 12 days.

Bad road and sidewalk conditions after the storms caused the Anchorage School District to keep its nearly 50,000 students home – and many parents with them – for five days of less effective remote learning.

Lots of students didn’t log on. Parents took time off from work and vented. Superintendent of Anchorage schools Jharrett Bryantt called it “a strategic failure” by several entities.

If the city had doubled the size of its road grader fleet and had 60 more heavy equipment operators, said Municipal Manager Kent Kohlhase, the street maintenance team could have met its long-standing goal to plow out Anchorage’s streets within 84 hours of those storms. Kohlhase estimated that would cost $9 million for the equipment and $9 million annually for the additional staff, who wouldn’t have anything to do for much of the year.

And, of course, some winters are below average for snowfall.

Mayor Dave Bronson said that’s why it’s more cost effective to line up private contractors on standby, like his administration did this fall.

“That’s our flex,” Bronson said in an interview last month. “So we plan for an average snow year, and we pay for an average snow year. And then when it gets bad, we get into these crises? We flex up with private contractors. They come in, they work for us, we pay them, and then they go away. And we’re not paying for people to stand around all year long.”

But what happens if the military, the state and local road service areas are all competing with the city for the same limited pool of contractors? Assembly member Zac Johnson worried about that competition driving up the cost.

“What is the reasonable balance between the resources we maintain at the city for addressing this, and what are we going to contract out?” he said. “Because it seems like the answer in recent years is more contractors, more contractors, more contractors. And I’m not sure that that’s cost efficient anymore.”

Several Assembly members said their constituents are still demanding better snow removal. Irene Quednow of Sand Lake is one of them. She’s a frequent Assembly critic at its meetings, and Tuesday night was no exception.

“I will gladly pay more taxes so the snow can be removed,” she told the Assembly. “People cannot get to work, people damage their vehicles. And anything we can do to help the mayor get that job done, I am willing to pay extra money. So do not use me as an excuse to not approve it.”

The city’s administration said it wants to better coordinate snow removal with the state, which is responsible for maintaining highways and several major roads in Anchorage. The interwoven jurisdictions and competing priorities can contribute to confusion and frustration.

City administrators said they also want to improve communication and do a better job managing residents’ expectations around snowplowing.

Assembly member Felix Rivera said that’s not good enough.

“The people are overwhelmingly telling us, ‘You need to do better,’” he said. “Then we should be looking at that realistically to say we can do better. Rather than from the framework of, ‘Well, this is what we can do.’ Right? There has to be something, as I think others have said, in between ‘This is what we can do’ and ‘We can do better.’”

The frequency of extreme snowfall isn’t the only thing that’s changed over time. Kohlhase, the municipal manager, said when he worked in street maintenance in 1984, the plow out goal was 72 hours. And in the 1990s, he said the shop had 94 employees. It’s now budgeted for 84 but is down to 70 due to vacancies.

The Assembly committee didn’t take any action on snow removal operations at its Wednesday meeting. Committee chair Zac Johnson said he wants to revisit how quickly the public should expect roads to be plowed, and how much they’re willing to pay for that level of service.

“I think we need to figure out, what are realistic expectations?” he said. “And then figure out what resources do we need to actually meet those expectations.”

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

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