When flooding damaged the Sterling Highway two weeks ago in Ninilchik, both residents and officials from the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities began considering how the September closing of the Ninilchik DOT station may have played into response time to the Deep Creek bridge outage.
In the aftermath of what has been called a 100-year event, state highway officials are evaluating the agency's performance and preparing for the next major weather activity that may impact Kenai Peninsula roads.
Chris Kepler, the DOT chief of maintenance and operations for the central region, said some of the original Ninilchik crew was temporarily rehired to help with repairs. In addition, crews were brought down from Anchorage and the Mata-nuska-Susitna region, and local contractors were hired.
"In looking back, I don't feel there was any place to improve," he said. "I think everybody was doing the best job they were able to do."
Kepler said with the ending of the road repair work, things are gradually returning to normal as crews prepare for snow that may seem far off. He said contractors will remain to finish up road and bridge repairs.
"We've known all along that winter was going to be late," he said. "As of today, we're pulling the maintenance people out of the work that's being done."
DOT Assistant Regional Director Murph O'Brien said the return to a reduced staff isn't optimal, and the 42-mile stretch of the Sterling Highway that was covered by the closed maintenance shop will be split between the Soldotna and Homer stations. He said when snow comes, the goal is for crews to tackle the main roads within a day and the side roads within two days.
"It's not the ideal situation," O'Brien said. "These stations were set up for a reason; to provide adequate service."
Ninilchik resident Tammy Self was involved in an automobile accident caused by flooding damage to the Deep Creek bridge on the morning of Oct. 23, when her car went across a gap in the road. Her sister Shelly Self, also of Ninilchik, said the absence of the Ninilchik station could have contributed to slow response time to reports of possible danger on the bridge.
"Nobody should have been crossing that bridge," Self said. "People were injured and could have been killed. The most disheartening part about it was that DOT had a station there. There should have been somebody monitoring the bridge all night."
Ray Newton was the foreman at the Ninilchik station before it closed. He took a position as a crew member at the Soldotna station after someone there retired and drives to work every day from Anchor Point.
Newton said flooding in Homer probably would have had a Ninilchik crew occupied, as was the case with Homer and Soldotna crews when the Deep Creek bridge went out.
"There were so many variables that we might not have been able to get back to Deep Creek," he said. "It's quite possible that we would've been (in Homer). But if we hadn't been down there, we would've been monitoring that bridge."
O'Brien said DOT's staffing situation at the time created a challenge for crews trying to get to all of the trouble spots.
"Without speaking to what initial actions were taken, it's hard to say how we could've responded, given the staffing that we have," he said. "Certainly, the closing of our station has taken away flexibility to respond to a variety of events. But, given the magnitude of the event, I'm not sure the closing would have made a difference."
Meanwhile, the village of Ninilchik has received the first response from its efforts to try to reopen the closed DOT shop. Self said a petition had been circulated and sent to Gov. Tony Knowles with 767 names requesting that the station be reopened.
"We just heard back from (him) last week," she said on Oct. 26.
Knowles sent a letter to the petitioners telling them that no steps would be taken to reopen the Ninilchik shop until the state House and Senate return to session in 2003.
But he said those measures could meet some resistance
"The best hope for a solution is for the Legislature, when it reconvenes in January, to restore the funds for the station and other maintenance activities through a supplemental appropriation," Knowles said in the letter.
"Please be aware that the Legislature is on record in opposition to supplemental appropriations."
He said there are signs that some legislators might be moved to change their position on the matter, but residents could make the greatest impact in persuading lawmakers to change their minds. Knowles said he planned to make some concessions in the budget to accommodate reopening the shop.
"It will only happen, however, if enough people contact their legislators between now and January to describe the serious and real impacts of no winter maintenance," the letter said.
"At the same time, I will restore road maintenance to its previous levels in the proposed fiscal year 2004 state operating budget, which, as part of the transition package, I will leave to my successor to present to the next Legislature."
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