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Future of law enforcement coverage on Seward Highway uncertain

By Daniella Rivera Photojournalist: Andy Nitchman - 10:21 PM March 14, 2017

Budget cuts to Alaska State Troopers are creating a big question for Alaskans: Who will patrol the Seward Highway from McHugh Creek to mile 75 this summer?

Col. Jim Cockrell, the director of Alaska State Troopers, says on May 1, they won’t be providing any regular patrols on the 36-mile stretch of one of Alaska’s deadliest roadways. The Municipality of Anchorage says the Anchorage Police Department won’t be doing it either, which raises even bigger questions: What happens when there’s an emergency? Who will respond? And who will pay for it?

This dilemma isn’t a new one. Troopers announced almost a year ago in a letter that they would be shifting primary responsibility for the McHugh Creek to Mile 75 portion of the highway to APD.

“The state’s position is, we’re no longer going to patrol that and we’re no longer going to investigate accidents,” Cockrell said during an interview Monday. “We don’t have a trooper on duty to do that. That’s going to fall on the Anchorage Police Department.”

The portion of the Seward Highway in debate

A spokesperson for the municipality denied KTVA’s request for an on camera interview regarding the issue, but this is what Municipal Attorney Bill Falsey told KTVA in April of 2016, “State law defines the mandatory obligations of municipalities, and patrolling and policing a state-designated safety corridor on a state highway is not one of them. And APD cannot accept that responsibility because it is funded by taxes collected from a service area, and the state law says that taxes collected from a service area cannot be used beyond the service area.”

Cockrell pointed to examples of APD patrolling the highway, saying in the past, APD has written municipal tickets between McHugh Creek and Mile 75.

An APD spokesperson confirmed the information, explaining, “From time to time we have grant-funded traffic enforcement details. These can range from OUI enforcement to safety corridor enforcement, etc. APD officers do write traffic citations on the Seward Highway between McHugh Creek and Mile 75 when we have a grant-funded detail for that enforcement. We do NOT enforce that area during the course of normal patrol duties as we do not have adequate staffing to do so.” 

When it comes to emergencies, like the tour bus crash during the summer of 2015, Cockrell says if there isn’t a trooper on duty, don’t expect one to show up. He says they’ll have three troopers in the area, but after May 1, the highway would have trooper coverage for about 10 hours within a 24-hour period, on a good day.

When asked if APD will fill in the gaps and respond to emergencies, a spokesperson emailed this statement:

“APD, legally, is allowed to respond to an emergency situation outside its service area or to offer mutual aid to another law enforcement agency on request.” – Myer Hutchinson, Communications Director 

When pushed for a more direct answer, Hutchinson replied, “I am not able to speculate on the future or a hypothetical situation and what APD might or might not do based on the legal boundaries I have set forth in my answer to you.” 

“That part of the highway, that is a state responsibility,” said Anchorage Assembly member John Weddleton during the Assembly’s meeting on March 7. “They’ve chosen not to meet that responsibility, so it’s kind of on us some way.”

During that meeting, Assembly members approved a ballot proposition for the Turnagain Arm communities of Rainbow, Indian, Bird Creek and Portage. If voters approve it during the April election, they’ll be able to tax themselves in order to pay for APD services, but the deal excludes any coverage of the Seward Highway.

“This is not a solution for the Seward Highway,” Weddleton stated. “That is a very serious problem in front of us.”

KTVA 11’s Daniella Rivera can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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