A driver negotiates an icy puddle while turning onto the Kenai Spur Highway from the Sterling Highway last weekend. Shifting weather patterns have kept drivers and the Department of Transportation on their toes this winter.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Maintenance workers with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities filled in their last pothole Friday after last week's warm spell spawned avalanches and dumped rain on Southcentral Alaska. Avalanche control work along the Seward and Sterling highways is finished as well and after several days of sporadic closures the roads are back to normal.
Jack Fullerton, DOT chief of maintenance and operations for central Alaska, said despite how nasty it's been the last few days and despite the number of days maintenance crews had to work overtime to keep the roads operating, this winter has been relatively mild.
"It's been a fairly normal winter as far as snowfall amount and the amount of plowing and sanding we have to do," Fullerton said. "Snow and ice doesn't really do anything to the roads. We manage the driving conditions, keep the snow plowed and keep the ice controlled by either (grating) it off or putting down sand."
Fullerton's jurisdiction encompasses Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Kenai Peninsula and southwestern portion of the state. In addition to maintaining the roads, he also is in charge of airport operations in the southwest, as well as keeping up public buildings.
The condition the roads are in depends on the weather, and water on pavement does more damage to the roads than snow and ice. As a result of the recent rain, maintenance crews were busy filling potholes. Others used artillery, plows, loaders and trucks to control the avalanche danger along the highways. On a normal day, approximately 200 employees work four 10-hour days. Fullerton said DOT employees work split shifts in order to cover days, nights and the weekend.
"When conditions get bad or extreme with the avalanche control work we were doing, everybody will be working overtime," he said.
On days when avalanches likely are to or have occurred, DOT has an expert assesses the conditions at areas of the road prone to avalanches and decides whether control work is necessary. Control work involves firing artillery into the mountain side to deliberately create avalanches.
"A lot of time that mitigates (the situation) by creating the avalanche when you're prepared to deal with it," Fullerton said. "You still have naturally occurring avalanches. Some people are accustomed to deal with that situation."
When a naturally occurring avalanche makes it to the highway, DOT shuts down the roads because of the likelihood more avalanches will follow. If it's possible more avalanches will follow, another assessment is necessary before workers can begin removing the snow. The roads that are more vulnerable to avalanches include portions of the Seward Highway between Girdwood and Portage, the junction of the Seward and Sterling Highways and the Moose Pass area.
DOT keeps an eye on the roads all winter long and assesses them daily. Fullerton said every year the department budgets for fuel and sand. DOT orders the sand in the spring and the shipment is received by summer so it can begin working as soon as the snow flies. This year hasn't been so bad because the state hasn't seen severe winter conditions, but more severe winters can make DOT's sand supply dwindle quickly.
"We pretty much know historically how much we use (each year)," Fullerton said. "We judge based on that and we're limited by the amount of budget we get."
He said last winter was a prime example of a severe winter. DOT ran short on sand and, with the high cost of fuel, had to apply to the Legislature to fund additional orders at various locations along the highway system. He said DOT maintenance never completely ran out of sand, but if the Legislature hadn't funded the extra shipment "we would have ourselves a problem."
Even though maintenance workers currently have an upper hand on the pothole situation, Fullerton said motorists can contact their local maintenance station should they drive over more. The number for the maintenance station is 262-2199.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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