Fire and rescue chiefs: We won't send crews into dangerous situations with limited DOT maintenance on Seward Highway
Some local fire and rescue chiefs are pushing back against the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities closure of the Silvertip Maintenance Station, located at the junction of the Seward and Hope highways.
DOT&PF says five staffers have been moved and the station will no longer be responsible for plowing and maintenance of the the 17-mile Hope Highway, as well as Turnagain Pass from mile markers 45 to 74. The department also says there will be no regular maintenance between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
"If the road isn't plowed, sanded and serviced then I can't imagine that we're going to be able to roll our equipment out to go help anybody," said Brendan Maguire, who is the chief of Hope Sunrise Emergency Services.
It's something that has people who live there worried as well.
"Our EMS team has already told us they would not respond if the conditions, if they couldn't get out," said Hope resident Andrea Petitfils. "So it is a life or death situation — or could be."
Further down the road, another emergency services leader agrees.
"We've made the decision, because I am responsible for all of the fire apparatus and the health and safety of our firefighters, I'm not going to send them into unknown conditions on the highway if the State of Alaska will not maintain that highway in the evenings," said Girdwood Fire and Rescue Chief Michelle Weston.
Chief Weston says Girdwood Fire and Rescue has a mutual aid agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough and would respond to emergencies in the impacted area if they have staff to keep Girdwood covered.
She suggests travelers through Turnagain Pass consider buying air ambulance insurance.
"Just because of the long distance and long time it takes to get to a hospital we often airlift when we can people through Lifemed or another air ambulance," she said. "There's insurance programs you can use for those air ambulances to look at that. That might be good investment."
DOT&PF spokesperson Shannon McCarthy says the closure of the Silvertip station is the result of a shortfall in the Motor Fuel Tax that people pay at the pump.
She says it's a statewide impact that has led to some reduced staff as well as fewer purchases of salt, sand and guardrails in different parts of the state. While there is concern about overnight coverage of the Seward Highway, McCarthy says crews would be out if a storm moved through.
"We'll able to authorize extended hours; overtime," said McCarthy.
She also explained why the department chose to forgo regular maintenance overnight and focus on daytime hours.
"About 95% of all of the traffic on that road is traveling between those hours. And we feel like we want to be able to provide service to those folks when they're actually out on the road," said McCarthy.
McCarthy added, "I just want to emphasize that we have an incredible group of heavy equipment operators that are going to do the best job they can. Their families drive the roads and they maintain those roads as if they're families are driving on them because they are."
DOT&PF Commissioner John MacKinnon says the assets from the Silvertip station are being deployed to stations in Girdwood and Crown Point, which will now cover the Hope Highway as well as the Seward Highway between mile markers 45 to 74.
"Silvertip Station will still house equipment as well as sand and chemicals to deal with road conditions. We will have the resources of two maintenance stations to respond, instead of just one. This is how we have managed other station closures," MacKinnon said in a statement posted on the DOT website.
In September, Republican Sen. Peter Micciche from Soldotna and other state leaders sent a letter to MacKinnon with their concerns about the situation.
"As frequent winter highway travelers between the [Kenai] Peninsula and Anchorage, we remain doubtful that safe highway maintenance is possible with the changes you are proposing," the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
MacKinnon responded to the letter explaining when revenue from the Motor Fuel Tax has fluctuated in the past, the Legislature has stepped in and replaced any shortfall with general fund dollars.
"Cuts to the department's budget for highways and aviation maintenance have unequivocally impacted our ability to maintain our infrastructure across the state. Since 2014, we have closed four maintenance stations, all in the department's Northern Region. Closing a maintenance station is not our preference, but is a management option that has been deployed given the reduction of state general funds," MacKinnon wrote.
The department also says it has the option to close roads to clear snow.
The Silvertip station was closed in mid-October. DOT&PF spokesperson McCarthy wasn't sure how long the closure would continue.
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