Department of Transportation to cut snow plow service on Seward Highway

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HOPE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Seward Highway is a lifeline to the Kenai Peninsula, but in an effort to save money due to budget shortfalls, the Department of Transportation won’t be plowing a significant stretch of the road overnight and is cutting the number of snow plows available during the day.

It’s gotten folks who serve the Kenai Peninsula are worried. For one, the weather in the area near Turnagain Pass can be extreme.

“I've had moments in this pass where we get on the road, and if there's been thirty minutes between snow plows, there could be a foot of snow on the highway,” said Richard Brackin, co-coordinator for the Eastern Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area that responds to accidents in the area.

He says that it could also put responders at risk.

“Now we have to get out on the roadway because we are honor bound to go help those people, it's just the people that we are, and so we're going to get in our trucks and we're going to head out down the highway,” he said.

Three legislators representing the Kenai said that those conditions can create serious safety concerns that were not accounted for in a letter to the Department of Transportation. They also pointed to concerns that essential items won’t make it to the peninsula from the Port of Alaska in Anchorage.

They pointed to the recent Swan Lake Fire as an example of how fast consumer goods can dry up when the highway is cut off. Sen. Peter Micciche, one of the signers of that letter, told KTUU the effects of short closures were obvious over the summer.

“I’m very concerned. We had the recent Swan Lake Fire and just intermittent closures during the fire resulted in empty grocery store shelves. Many people missed their doctor’s appointments.”

Furthermore, because of the decision to cut maintenance hours to only include 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., semi trucks delivering those goods will be forced from their usual early morning hours to midday schedules, potentially leading to more concentrated traffic during the day - and thus more safety concerns.

“The service changes you are proposing will likely cause on-highway competition between, and significant safety impacts, between those heavier commercial users and families traveling the highway for medical appointments, outside travel and normal business,” reads the letter.

Micciche told KTUU that he thinks the economic calculations are also misguided.

“I don’t believe it will reduce cost,” he said, “I actually believe it will increase costs and the impacts to public safety will be significant.”

Department of Transportation spokesman Shannon McCarthy said that the department had no choice after they lost $750,000 because of reduced funds from the motor fuel tax. She said that there will be times when they will have to close down the highway in order to maintain public safety.

“If we have a heavy winter storm we may have to close the highway. We'll do everything we can to avoid that. We don't want people traveling on an unsafe highway so if the conditions we will close that highway,” she told KTUU.

But leaders don’t think it’s the right way to go.

“I am all about cutting costs when they actually result in costs that are cut and they don’t negatively impact public safety,” said Micciche.

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