Agencies struggle to fill Seward Highway gap left by trooper withdrawal

This photo taken July 3, 2015 shows cars lined up on the Seward Highway along the Turnagain Arm in after a fatal accident in which a trooper vehicle struck and killed a motorcyclist it was pursuing closed the highway for several hours. Troopers have reduced their coverage of a stretch from about mile 75 of that highway to south of McHugh Creek due to budget cuts. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

Drivers on the Seward Highway between McHugh Creek and the Turnagain Pass are facing a potential law enforcement coverage gap as Alaska State Troopers withdraw and remaining agencies struggle to figure out a plan.

 

After repeated heavy budget cuts to the Alaska Department of Public Safety over the last few years, the Alaska State Troopers administrators announced their intention to reduce patrol service between McHugh Creek and approximately Mile 75 of the Seward Highway, and drop service to the communities along Turnagain Arm. The highway is one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the state as people make their way to and from the Kenai Peninsula during the summer.

On Monday, troopers scaled back their coverage of that stretch of highway and no longer provides primary law enforcement to Turnagain Arm communities including Girdwood, Bird Creek, Indian and Portage, leaving it to the jurisdiction of the Anchorage Police Department. The state’s position is that those communities are within the Municipality of Anchorage and therefore fall to the city’s police agency in the absence of troopers, said Alaska State Troopers Director Col. James Cockrell.

Three highway patrol officers based out of Anchorage will continue to monitor the highway in 10-hour shifts, Cockrell said.

“Their primary focus will be the Seward Highway, however we do move them around the state,” Cockrell said, explaining that as state resources, troopers can be moved to cover high-traffic weekends or large events.

While there has never been 24/7 trooper coverage of the highway, Cockrell said this move is a reduction prompted by continued cuts to the troopers’ budget. AST has lost 32 trooper positions over the last two fiscal years, he said. The agency had 328 troopers when he took over as director, and is now down to 296. Cockrell has been working with the Anchorage Police Department and other agencies to bridge the gap but intends to retire effective May 12. A resident of Soldotna, he plans to take a job with Tesoro in Nikiski, he said, a much shorter commute.

Currently, Girdwood contracts with the Whittier Police Department to patrol the Girdwood area. The Anchorage Police Department has shied away from committing to regularly patrolling and responding all along the Turnagain Arm, citing the fact that those communities were outside the service area in which Anchorage residents tax themselves for police protection, which ended at McHugh Creek.

However, Anchorage drafted two propositions for voters in the small communities of Indian, Bird Creek, Rainbow and Portage to tax themselves for police service. On April 4, the voters approved both measures.

Anchorage is still trying to figure out how to extend those services, as it’s been less than a month since the proposition passed. Meanwhile, the troopers have passed their deadline of May 1, just in time for tourism season.

There could still be a potential gap in police response to accidents along the stretch of highway that runs in front of those Turnagain Arm communities, though, if one were to happen outside of the 10-hour trooper shifts, Cockrell said.

“Worst case scenario — which I hope to God doesn’t happen — is they would wait until (the) Anchorage Police (Department) ends up showing up,” Cockrell said.

The state police agency will try to keep two officers on at a time so that each has backup, Cockrell said, and the 10-hour shifts will be focused toward weekends with high traffic flow, like during Kenai’s personal-use dipnet season, and on special events like the Mt. Marathon Race in Seward on July 4.

“(The Bureau of Highway Patrol) will continue to investigate traffic crashes that occur on the highway from McHugh Creek to Mile Post 75 to the Seward Highway when they are on duty, unless the Anchorage Police Department wishes to investigate all crashes within the (Municipality of Anchorage),” Cockrell wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to the Anchorage Police Department. “AST will not place BHP on standby, and will not authorize off-duty callouts or investigate crashes within the MOA.”

Troopers — when they’re on duty — will intervene in the Turnagain Arm communities if there’s a “serious-level crime,” Cockrell said, but only to hold the scene until APD can arrive.

The Kenai Peninsula gets pulled into the debate, too. Emergency medical calls made south of McHugh Creek are routed to Soldotna’s 911 response center, which coordinates with the patchwork emergency responders and law enforcement agencies between Soldotna and Anchorage to get a response.

In Soldotna, the plan moving forward isn’t 100 percent clear, said Tammy Goggia, director for the Soldotna Public Safety Communication Center, in a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly during budget discussions Tuesday. Even after the passage of the service areas, the response method isn’t totally hammered out, she said.

“There are a lot of scenarios that I’ve laid out that I’m still waiting for answers because those answers need to come from the Alaska State Troopers to me,” she said. “… It’s not resolved.”

The stretch of highway has seen two relatively major incidents within the last month — one involving an active shooter who crashed into multiple vehicles near Portage and shut down traffic for several hours, and another on Sunday that stopped traffic as troopers pursued a fleeing driver along the Seward Highway near the Hope Highway Junction. Both incidents required multiple agencies to respond, but with the troopers pulling out, it will be unclear how those responses will play out, Goggia said.

Emergency medical services are fairly well provided for — it’s accident investigation and cleanup that’s in question, she said. Because the Seward Highway is the one entrance and exit to the Kenai Peninsula for drivers, when it is closed down, traffic backs up significantly. If the troopers can’t respond to investigate and clear those accident scenes, the delays could extend.

“It’s going to be a problem,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre during the budget meeting Tuesday. “It’s going to get addressed probably under a crisis situation, probably, this summer. I don’t think that there’s a good concrete plan in place at this time although we are still discussing it with the troopers.”

The Soldotna Public Safety Communication Center, along with the peninsula’s fire and emergency service areas, is already stretched thin. In a year of budget cuts at the state level and cautious planning for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the center is asking for a slight increase in personnel and additional funds to purchase new equipment. Thanks to a $200,000 donation from the Tesoro Foundation last, the center was able to replace six consoles with no additional cost to the borough.

The borough is currently wrangling with how to patch its own emergency response safety net as well. The assembly will consider an ordinance establishing the Eastern Kenai Peninsula Highway Service Area at its May 16 meeting, which would set up a corridor for emergency service response, proposed to be paid for by Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds from the federal government. If passed, it would take some of the burden of response off the small volunteer fire and emergency service departments in Cooper Landing, Seward, Moose Pass, Hope and Bear Creek.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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