Budget reductions to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities means many services across Alaska are being slashed. Among them, winter snow plowing operations. KHNS’s Jillian Rogers talked to DOT about what this means for winter driving.
If climate predictions of a mild, snowless winter are correct, the cuts to winter maintenance in Haines and Skagway might not be a big deal. But if Southeast gets buried, well, it might be wise to buy a shovel or two. And some skis.
About $34 million has been cut from the DOT budget and as a result, winter roads have been ranked and will be plowed and sanded this year according to priority. DOT is responsible for 249 airports, 11 ferries serving 35 communities, more than 5,600 miles of highway and over 700 public facilities throughout the state. Roads will still be maintained with snow clearing and sanding, but roads in Haines and Skagway will not get continuous clearing during winter storms.
DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow says the department is trying to stretch the money it does have when it comes to winter maintenance.
“What that means is that we will have reduced operating hours and because of that we are making sure the public is aware that we have prioritized roadways in every community that we serve and we will focus on those priorities and then work our way down to the lesser priority roads as our budget and time allows for our staff.”
Roads are ranked based on the volume of traffic. According to the DOT, Level 1 roads are cleared of snow within 24 hours, and are mostly expressways and highways with lots of vehicles traveling hourly. Haines and Skagway don’t have any Level 1 roads. Woodrow says they only exist in the larger cities like Anchorage and Juneau.
Level 2 roads are cleared within 36 hours with the Haines Highway ranked as a second-tier road. The Dyea Road and the Klondike Highway are Level 2. Mud Bay Road to New Park Road, Union Street and, Front Street and Airport Road are all Level 3, which means it’ll take up to 48 hours to clear after a snow storm. Many of side roads around town simply aren’t ranked at all, not even a Level 5, which means if it snows a lot, strap on your snowshoes and leave for early for work.
“The map online is a great place for everyone to visit,” Woodrow says. “Look at the priority level of the roads that they travel most frequently and during a major winter weather event, it may give you a good idea of when you’ll see the plows come by and clear your roadway.”
Woodrow says that there is a little wiggle room when it comes to major dumps of snow and emergency situations. Those instances will be looked at a case by case basis and some overtime can be authorized if it’s a matter of public safety. But, if it’s just your run-of-the-mill blizzard, expect to wait a while.
“If we have a light winter, you might not even notice a difference at all, Woodrow says. “Really where you may see some impact is during major weather events where it snows for several hours, or several days on end. And that is when our maintenance workers will be limited on the amount of service they can provide and they will have to focus on those roads that must receive a higher priority.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, Alaska is looking at another mild, snowless winter. One contributing factor is El Nino, a series of climate events caused in part by stretches of warm water in the Pacific Ocean. This year’s El Nino is predicted to be the strongest on record, according to NOAA.
And while robust snowfalls might not be in the forecast, freezing rain events are. Road sanding and plowing go hand in hand, so along with delays in snow removal, roads in Haines and Skagway might just have a little less traction this winter.
To find out how your road ranks for winter plowing, click here.