After over a year hiatus, the Silvertip Maintenance Station is up and running again.
Silvertip covers a 60-mile stretch of the Seward Highway, including Turnagain Pass. The state wrote the station out of its budget in 2019 but agreed to open it again in December following an outpouring of concern from commercial truck drivers, recreationists and Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche.
Since then, the station has been reopening slowly. The last of four non-permanent employees came on last week.
“The great thing is we have these new employees that are just dedicated to the pass, dedicated to the Silvertip area," said Shannon McCarthy, the spokesperson for the Department of Transportation.
“So that’s Hope Road, it’s Turnagain Pass, it’s both sides, the north and the south," she said. "So we feel like we’re in much better shape.”
While the station was closed, operators in Girdwood and Crown Point picked up the slack. But between midnight and 4 a.m., a popular transport time for commercial truck drivers, there were no operators on duty.
Drivers said the inconsistent plowing made their commutes more dangerous. It was especially rough in January, as the area saw a lot of rain and snow.
Now, there’s someone working at the station every hour of the day, McCarthy said.
“Not everything is back in the Silvertip station yet, but we’re moving everything back in," she said. "It does take some additional work in terms of just making sure the supplies are there for employees. We don’t want to send them down there without all the supplies they need to work.”
The department purchased used equipment for the station, since it can take months to bring in new machinery from Outside. It’s using coronavirus relief funding to pay the current four Silvertip employees. But it hasn’t worked out a long-term funding mechanism.
That came up at a budget meeting Wednesday. Sen. Micciche asked DOT Deputy Commissioner Rob Carpenter why the department made the decision to close Silvertip in the first place.
Carpenter said a shortfall in motor fuel tax revenue, even before the pandemic, was to blame for the reduced budget that shuttered the station.
“I think the agency’s been — as our budget has been reduced, we're trying to adapt as well," he said. "And I think we got to a point, a breaking point. The public outcry was there enough to where the situation reversed. But I agree with you, we should for sure bring it to the legislature’s attention before we make any potential major decisions like this. And in the future, hopefully our maintenance funding will be stable.”
Alaska’s motor fuel tax, the lowest in the country, has historically sustained the department’s maintenance stations and workers. There was a push to raise the tax last March but it fell by the wayside when COVID-19 hit.
McCarthy said the station would need about $650,000 in fiscal year 2022 to fully fund Silvertip.