An unsettling notice arrived from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities just before 7 p.m. Thursday. It warned of difficult driving conditions on a 38-mile stretch of the Parks Highway in the area of Broad Pass and southward.
A winter storm had arrived and snow was accumulating on the highway. Driving through the night and the morning was not advised, according to the DOT.
Why? Because the DOT no longer has sufficient funds to plow the highway as usual. This was the language contained in that DOT notice: “Current budget restrictions have limited snowplowing operations on the Parks Highway. Crews will begin clearing roadways tomorrow morning ... “
The Parks Highway is the main north-south highway in Alaska. It is of particular importance to Fairbanks, sitting alone at the northern end of the route and reliant on it for access to Anchorage. In this particular winter incident, it turns out the snowfall was worse than anticipated and the DOT reversed course and brought in crews on overtime to clear the roadway.
But do we really want one of our main highways subjected to reduced snowplowing at any time? The Parks Highway is heavily traveled by tractor-trailers, which spray clouds of new-fallen snow behind them and further obscure visibility. Winter driving on Alaska highways can be difficult in general; reducing the amount of snowplowing only makes it worse.
The DOT announced in late September it was cutting back on snowplowing and winter road maintenance in the face of the state’s projected $3.7 billion budget deficit for the current fiscal year. The Legislature had cut the department’s funding 11 percent, with most of that having to come in maintenance and operations. The DOT’s northern region office eliminated 15 positions, converted 14 full-time positions to seasonal jobs, reduced equipment spending by about $1 million, and cut almost all of its overtime budget.
The result, DOT officials warned, would be reduced and less-timely service.
“This will really impact us when we have storms,” the department’s northern region spokeswoman said at the time. “We won’t have the flexibility to respond in the way we have in the past.”
But who or what is to blame for this budget reduction? The easy answer is to point to the price of oil, which has tumbled precipitously and shows little sign of returning to its $100 per barrel levels. The price of a barrel of North Slope crude was $42.04 on Wednesday, down from $75.40 on the same date in 2014 and $101.22 in 2013.
The price of oil isn’t to blame, however. The collapse in the price of oil is merely a circumstance that must be handled. Life is full of circumstances to be dealt with, whether for each of us as individuals, for businesses or for governments.
The real answer is DOT has a budget problem because Alaskans have allowed it to have a budget problem.
Certainly the DOT budget, like that of any state department, can be scrutinized for possible waste. But citing the potential for waste as a reason to not provide sufficient funds for essential services can only be done for so many years before the department’s budget reaches a point at which there isn’t much left to eliminate. Perhaps the DOT is at that point now.
To some extent, the Alaska public is responsible for situations such as the delayed plowing of the Parks Highway and other routes because too many of our political leaders in Juneau have been pilloried for suggesting Alaskans actually pay toward the cost of operating the government that provides the services. A legislator who suggests using some of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for government services gets branded as someone who wants to “raid the permanent fund.” That poor legislator then ends up with an election opponent who vows to “protect the permanent fund.”
The same goes for candidates who suggest we might have to have a sales tax or a personal income tax and who point out that Alaska simply cannot cut its way to a balanced budget.
So the only way to make Alaskans understand the gravity of the budget situation, apparently, is to let them suffer the reduced services. It isn’t just the DOT that is scaling back: For example, the district attorney’s office in Barrow has closed and its 800 annual cases have been transferred to the Fairbanks office, and the state courthouse in Fairbanks is expanding its holiday closures.
It’s past time for Alaskans to wake up to the seriousness of the budget problem and to listen when those too-few courageous political leaders dare to speak the truth.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,