While the Kenai Peninsula still has fall colors near sea level, winter is slowly but surely lowering its white curtain across the mountains. Lowland drivers can probably put off tire changes for a bit yet, but anyone planning a trip to Anchorage should prepare for inclement conditions.
“Turnagain Pass, because it gets the moisture from the ocean, it can really be very different than Kenai Peninsula or Anchorage weather. It’s its own system. So, just be cautious, make sure you’re checking that before you head out,” said Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. “Be prepared, be sure that you have good tires, you’re prepared for the potential of winter driving conditions at all times. Make sure you have some stuff in the car that, should you get stranded, you can at least be comfortable.”
McCarthy says the Silvertip Maintenance Station, at the junction of the Seward and Hope highways, is staffed and ready for winter. The station was closed due to budget cuts and declining fuel tax revenue in 2019, leaving maintenance operators to come from Girdwood and Crown Point to cover Turnagain Pass and the Summit Lakes area. After a public outcry, the station was re-opened last year. McCarthy says four of the five positions are filled but it’s a tight labor market, so hiring has been challenging.
“You almost can’t go to any business without seeing those help wanted signs. … Yeah, we are literally competing for good employees and, hopefully, we’ll have that position filled shortly,” McCarthy said.
Road construction projects along the Sterling and Seward highways are wrapping up for the season.
“Most of them are going into winter shutdown. So they’re buttoning up, trying to get everything in good shape, so it’s all a good drivable surface and a maintainable surface for the winter,” she said.
Bridge replacement along Miles 75 to 90 on Turnagain Arm is ongoing, but that work is off the highway and shouldn’t affect traffic. And a multi-year rockfall mitigation project along the cliffs near Anchorage has at least one more year to go.
“We are still getting some rock on the road. It is fairly limited right now. We usually see an increase after a really high wind, heavy rain event, so that’s just something to be aware of,” McCarthy said.
They’re sharp rocks so avoid them as much as possible. Drivers can report rockfalls to the Anchorage Police Department at 311. If it’s a significant fall that poses a safety threat, call 911.
One more number for you — McCarthy recommends drivers check 511.alaska.gov for updates on work projects and highway conditions before hitting the road. But be aware condition reports aren’t up to the minute. Operators post updates at the beginning of their shifts, and if conditions are challenging, they might not have a chance to pull off and post another update until hours later.
“The busier they are, the less frequent they’re able to update conditions. If you see something in the morning that says, ‘Snow, limited visibility, use caution’ kind of thing. ‘Hard-packed snow’ or something like that. The conditions are still that way. If they’re continuing to work out there, it’s not like the conditions have changed,” McCarthy said. “They update as frequently as they can but usually when we have the most adverse conditions, that’s when you’ll see that gap in time. That’s because they’re out there working and conditions are challenging.”
She recommends checking out the cameras on the website, too, which list weather conditions and offer current views of the highways. Facebook has several groups for posting about road conditions on the Kenai Peninsula, as well.
DOT’s other reminder is — how to put this delicately?
“We call it BARFF — bridges and ramps freeze first. We strive to be memorable with stuff like that,” McCarthy said.
Bridges and ramps form ice earlier and hold it longer than surrounding surfaces, so use extra caution when approaching.
DOT posts this and other catchy reminders on its Facebook page, Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.