The Silvertip Maintenance Station may be small but it covers a well-traveled, 60-mile swath of the Seward Highway, stretching from Moose Pass up through Turnagain Pass and the 17-mile Hope Highway.
Facing a dwindling budget, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities closed the station last winter and relied on neighboring stations to pick up the slack. But an outpouring of pushback from local travelers and Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche has prompted the state to reopen the station, promising a restoration of full-time plowing and road maintenance to the area this winter.
It’s a welcome announcement to those who are concerned about travel in the pass, including the truck drivers who shuttle supplies between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.
Alaska Trucking Association Executive Director Joe Michel said the drivers he works with are ecstatic about the change.
“On behalf of the drivers who traverse that path, ATA thanks Sen. Micicche for building a coalition of interested parties that raised the need of this road maintenance to a statewide level, as well as Gov. Dunleavy for giving DOT the tools to help keep our roads safe," he said.
The Department of Transportation cited a budget shortfall and declining fuel tax revenue when it shuttered the Silvertip Maintenance Station in September 2019. The state’s fuel tax has historically sustained the department’s stations and maintenance workers.
The station had a staff of five employees.
In the interim, operators in Girdwood to the north and Crown Point to the south covered the area, driving over 10 additional miles per shift. Still, between midnight and 4 a.m., a popular transport time for commercial truck drivers, there were no operators on duty.
Those familiar with the area said there also hasn’t been as much plowing in the area since the closure. Turnagain Pass sees frequent, heavy snows in the winter, especially around Mile 70, at the 1,000-foot peak of the pass.
Several local and state politicians signed onto a letter last winter expressing concerns about the closure. Last Thursday, Micciche sent another letter to the governor, asking him to reopen the station.
One day later, he complied.
Micciche says he’s been meeting with a group of highway travelers to discuss potential paths forward.
“Alaskans in Southcentral had had enough and were ready to go to the next level to demonstrate how important highway safety is to them," he said. "They were willing to think about a very large-scale demonstration on the highway and other tactics. And, my last request to them was, ‘OK, I’m willing to have those conversations. But I’m going to ask you to give me a couple of days.’”
That’s when Micciche sent his letter. He said he was surprised the governor responded so quickly.
DOT spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said DOT will move forward with reopening soon.
“We are looking to reopen the station immediately, or as quickly as possible, I should say," she said. "We started working on it Friday afternoon and we’re looking at hiring long-term, non-perms as quickly as possible.”
That’s long-term, non-permanent employees. In the future, McCarthy said DOT will look into hiring four or five permanent employees to replace the positions that were cut last year.
McCarthy also said the state will be looking into getting new equipment for the area, including plows. She said the department does not yet have an estimate for how much reopening will cost, and that it’s working with the Office of Management and Budget to determine where it will get those funds.
It's too early to draw conclusions about how the changes in maintenance have impacted fatalities on that section of the road, McCarthy said. But drivers said, anecdotally, they think the roads are worse than they’ve ever been.
Last winter, there were two temporary highway closures through the pass — one in January and one in February.
In addition to Micchiche’s efforts, several concerned Alaskans organized a campaign this fall to get better plowing in the pass. Petitioners said they anticipated higher traffic in the area during the pandemic, especially from outdoor enthusiasts who use the road to access backcountry in the region.
Girdwood-based Nick D’Alessio is a backcountry ski guide who drives through Turnagain Pass most winter weekdays. He co-authored the letter.
“No one’s saying that they don’t plow. It’s just that there’s been a drastic decline in the amount of maintenance and plowing and plowing in the pullouts that we’ve all seen in the last three or four years," he said. "And last winter was unacceptable.”
The petition got over 2,000 signatures. Organizers sent the letter to the governor earlier this month.
D’Alessio said the group is glad to see the revival of the maintenance station. But drivers still worry it’s a Band-aid solution for a longer-term problem.
Petitioners had asked the governor to work with the Legislature to increase funding for maintenance in the area in the proposed 2022 budget. Micciche says Dunleavy’s new budget does not allocate more funding specifically for Silvertip but sees possibilities for more funding within existing budgets.
“Perhaps there are areas in the Alaska Department of Transportation that we can reduce, to shift some of that funding that are less important to Alaskans," he said. "Or look at other solutions.”
He said his office found, when it surveyed constituents, that a majority were in favor of moderately increasing the fuel tax if those funds were used to improve highway maintenance.
Currently, that tax is 8.95 cents per gallon — the lowest in the nation. The Senate voted to double that tax in March, but that bill was dropped when the pandemic hit. Micciche was among the senators that voted in favor of the increase.