Steese Highway maintenance

News-Miner

A snowplow clears berms on the Steese Highway near Eagle Summit.

Officials from public works entities discussed their methods of keeping roads clear and the challenges they face in doing so during the fourth annual Fairbanks Area Surface Transportation (FAST) Planning Winter Maintenance Forum on Tuesday night.

Roads and sidewalks are utilized by a variety of users — from cars to school buses to bikers and pedestrians — and therefore staying safe, especially during the snowy and dark winter months, requires a collaborative effort. Here’s what Fairbanksans can expect from the upcoming winter season, as well as a few steps residents can take to help with road maintenance, which is particularly important due to a labor shortage.

Daniel Schacher with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Jeff Jacobson with the city of Fairbanks both gave overviews of their winter maintenance techniques and schedules. Schadler said that DOT is currently working on ways to improve efficiency. This includes purchasing trucks that can fulfill several different tasks and investing in new technology (such as switching to LED lights) to cut down on electric costs.

Additionally, several years ago DOT began treating the roads with brine. Although the use of chemicals is controversial, Schacher said it has reduced crashes and “saved society millions of dollars.”

However, Schacher noted, DOT is currently facing a labor shortage, which makes their work more difficult.

“Everyone who wants to be in a machine right now has a job,” Schacher said. “It’s a real challenge.”

Jacobson said that the city of Fairbanks is experiencing similar difficulties finding labor. The city has a “great turnover” and lost many experienced employees. The average length of employment with Fairbanks Public Works is only three years.

Moreover, Jacobson explained, due to budget constraints, only one new full-time employee has been hired on to Public Works in the past 30 years, but their workload has increased because the city now clears some streets that the state used to maintain. The city relies on roughly 30 temporary workers to help with snow removal, which can be difficult to find on short notice after a big snow event.

In an effort to conserve funds, when 3 inches or less of snow is forecast and temperatures are expected to be above or near freezing, the city will not remove snow from streets or sidewalks. They do, however, send out sanding trucks immediately to prevent ice from forming on roads.

After big snow events, Public Works “kicks into high gear,” said Jacobson. This includes sending dozens of temporary workers out immediately to clear arterial and collector roads — which must be cleared within 72 hours — and then to residential areas.

The city has a rotating schedule for which neighborhoods are prioritized for clearing, which changes yearly. The schedule, available on the city’s website, helps residents prepare for the snow removal. It takes from four to six weeks to clear all neighborhoods.

For the first time this year, the Public Works will send out a small number of graders to smooth out roads in neighborhoods shortly after big snow events. The equipment will not create burms or remove snow, but will go over the snow to remove deep ruts, making it safer for residents to leave neighborhoods. They are also requesting funds in the 2022 budget to purchase a side-dump truck. This can hold as much snow as three regular dump trucks and therefore would improve efficiency.

Despite their best efforts to prepare, the city’s ability to clear snow depends on many factors outside of their control, Jacobson said. For example, equipment (which is run for about 20 hours a day) can get damaged. Due to pandemic-related delays, it can take up to six months to receive replacement parts. The experience level of workers also plays a role, because experienced workers are more efficient.

There are also budgeting constraints. According to Jacobson, for the past two years temporary labor costs for November and December were $350,000, which is 25% of their annual budget.

“I have to stretch the dollars out as much as I can,” he said, which is why they do not remove less than 3 inches of snow.

Given these constraints, the success of keeping roads and sidewalks clear depends upon help from the public. Jacobson recommends that people check the city website for the plowing schedule, contact Public Works about visibility issues and keep their driveways clear. However, people should not push snow from their property onto the sidewalk or streets, as this hinders clearing. Instead, Jacobson said to push snow to the edges of the property.

There are also a few things people should do when on the move. First, when driving, never pass a machine during a snow removal operation. Drivers should also be extremely attentive to kids around school bus stops. Parents should encourage their children to wear brightly colored clothing and to carry a flashlight while walking. Bikers should wear brightly colored and reflective gear as well as a headlight, said REI employee Dorian Granger.

“Visibility is important because we all share the road,” Granger added.

Contact reporter Maisie Thomas at 907-459-7544 or mthomas@newsminer.com.

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