Local and state agencies provided a snapshot look at upcoming winter operations, including challenges and updates in equipment, during a winter maintenance forum Tuesday night at Noel Wien Library.
The forum, hosted by Fairbanks Area Surface Transportation Planning, included managers from the Fairbanks North Star Borough, cities of Fairbanks and North Pole, and the Alaska Department of Transportation.
A common threat among all the agencies is a shortage of equipment operators.
DOT Northern Region’s vacancy rate ranges between 25% and 35% (including being nine short of 32 employees in Fairbanks). The borough reported contractors for its road service areas are short on employees, and Fairbanks has concerns about the lack of trained temporary equipment operators.
Another takeaway: Be patient and let winter snow crews do their jobs.
Dan Schacher, DOT’s director of maintenance and operations, handles roadways that have anywhere from 50 to 35,000 cars a day (the Gaffney Road, Airport Way, Richardson Highway, and the Steese Expressway).
Schacher said — labor issues aside — DOT’s largest challenges are flat funding and increased maintenance for new capital projects and requirements to backfill other nearby maintenance areas.
“It eliminates a lot of our flexibility in town, so we’re faced with a domino effect,” Schacher said.
To address the combined impact, Schacher said DOT contracted out some of its services, including sign and guardrail installations.
Snowplowing for some of the area’s lower priority roads have been contracted out for November.
Roads are cleared of snow on a priority level. Priority one roads include high-volume highways and expressways and major urban corridors; priority two routes are based upon traffic volume and uses, such as highways and roads between communities; lower priorities are major local roads located in urban areas and minor roads that provide residential or recreational access.
Priority three and four roads take between 24 and 30 hours to clear after a storm, while higher level can range from 12 and 18 hours after a storm.
“These contracts are coming in more expensive than what we can do in-house,” he said. But the goal is to work around the issues.
“We’ll do what we can, but unless things change, sooner or later the system will break,” Schacher said.
DOT invested in new methods to address topics such as freezing ice, including tips to break through it.
“We can plow snow until the cow comes home, but ice will eat our lunch,” Schacher said.
DOT went through $50,000 during the last winter season. Other equipment was modified to handle and clear snow and ice, and DOT embraced utility and multi-use attachments for its snow plots, graders and other equipment.
City of Fairbanks
Jeff Jacobson, Fairbanks public works director, said the city has some new toys in its arsenal, including two new side dump trucks and a new wheeled sidewalk plow.
“No two winters have been the same,” Jacobson said. “The success of keeping streets and sidewalks plowed, cleared and safe is on working together to predict, plan and prepare for the unexpected.”
The city’s standard operating procedures are to deploy graders after three inches of snow.
Clearing main roads are at the top of the list, followed by residential areas and then neighborhood streets. After the city plows snow, it sweeps back through to collect snow pushed to side of streets.
Night crews handle downtown core snow removal to be disposed in snow storage areas.
Public Works has nine permanent maintenance employees and hires up to 30 temporary workers at the height of its snow removal season.
Jacobson said last winter was a record season, removing over 677,000 cubic yards of snow and ice during a near-record snowfall. The city had to rent additional side dumps to keep up, costing as much as $2,300 a day.
The city’s equipment roster includes eight graders, 15 dump trucks/sanders, two tractors with side dumps, eight snow loaders/blowers, five front-end loaders, three sand trucks, three skid steers, three holders, a new trackless sidewalk plow, a backhoe, a small tractor and 10 manual snowblowers. Several vehicles can serve multiple roles.
Snow is typically deposited in one of eight snow storage sites, four of which have expanded over the last five years. The city has an agreement to store snow at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds through December and plans to open a new one in late 2023 on 30th Avenue.
Crews work four 10-hour days. Weekend snow plowing doesn’t occur unless a serious blizzard hammers the area. Sanding and some sidewalk clearing can be done on the weekends.
North Pole City Services Director Danny Wallace said North Pole contracts most of its snow plowing service. Snow removal services cover 65 streets, including 18 miles of roadways and roundabouts and 12 miles of pedestrian paths.
North Pole first priorities focus first on emergency services, city roads near schools and high traffic roads.
“We look at how our fire and police services can get to emergences during the winter,” Wallace said.
Like Fairbanks, North Pole starts plowing once three inches have accumulated. Snow removal can be done within 24 hours and costs the city about $12,000 per plowing round.
“We are very careful and try to be efficient with our taxpayers’ dollars,” Wallace said.
The Department of Transportation provides snow removal service for Badger Road/Santa Claus Lane, Busby and Hurst roads, Old Richardson Highway, the Richardson Highway interchanges and St. Nicholas Drive.
Wallace stressed that vehicles should be removed from the streets after being notified about upcoming snowplowing operations. Vehicles can be towed, ticketed or impounded at the owners’ expense if they block operations.
He added the city isn’t liable for any damage to any structures, vehicles, fences or landscaping placed in public road easements.
The city also focuses on clearing access to businesses and residents primary driveways; secondary driveways are the owners responsibility.
Michael Bredlie, the borough’s rural services manager, said the borough doesn’t directly maintain its 500 miles of roadways.
Instead, 103 road service areas manage those roads, each with its own commission and budget.
Residents in the service areas pay an additional property tax to fund the budget.
“Everything happens at a neighborhood level,” Bredlie said.
The borough provides resources for locating and contacting individual service area commissions, including an online service at /fnsb.gov/228/Rural-Services.
Service areas are responsible for contracting out snow removal.
One challenge, Bredlie acknowledged, has been a difficulty by some road service areas to find a contractor.
“We’ve had some contractors lose half their employees to retirement, so they might not renew service areas because they don’t have the people,” Bredlie said. “Going into this winter, I have four service areas that don’t have contracts.”
Bredlie said the borough has reached out to other contractors and brought a few on board. In addition, the borough issued a “small-dollar” purchase order for service areas without contracts that cover up to $10,000 in plow services “until we can a licensed contractor.”
Snow removal frequency depends on individual commissions, he said.
“Every commission has its own way of doing things,” Bredlie said. “Some service areas are out there as soon as the first flake hits the ground, and we have others who prefer to save up until the hard pack.”
The borough, FAST Planning and DOT all have an interactive database of roads and contacts.
Olivia Lundsford, FAST Planning’s transportation planner, said FAST Planning’s “Who Maintains My Road” includes a catalogue of state-maintained roads, city roads and road service area roads. The map includes “orphan roads,” or streets that aren’t covered by any group.
It can be found at fastplanning.us.
DOT’s interactive system displays the road priorities by region, from major roads to minor local roads. It can be found online at dot.alaska.gov/stwdmno/wintermap.
The borough’s road service area map highlights roads within individual service areas, or orphan roads, along with links to commissioner contacts. The online map system can be accessed at fnsb.gov/228/Rural-Services.