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My Turn: DOT's 'focus' on safety

Posted: September 17, 2012 - 8:35pm  |  Updated: September 17, 2012 - 11:00pm

In the Sept 12, 2012 Empire “My Turn”, DOT’s Southeast Region Director, Albert H. Clough wrote about “Roadside memorials, flashing red crosswalk signals, and flashing yellow arrows.” He started by saying, “Safety is a major part of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) mission .... and it is a factor in all of our maintenance actions.” I am encouraged by his statement of concern, but would like to see a more proactive response to the scores of other roadway hazards in the Juneau area that have been ignored for too long.

Earlier this year I placed a call to DOT’s SE maintenance, asking when they were going to fix the jarring bridge joint at the Sunny Point overpass that batters northbound traffic on Egan. While I got no direct response to my question of if or when it was to be repaired, I felt somewhat mocked for asking! Message received. I stopped asking and now slow down more when I encounter that abrupt pavement break.

A month later, when the news reported that pavement breaks were being repaired out North Douglas, I called the DOT commissioner’s office and asked, again, that since they were repairing North Douglas, couldn’t they also address the abrupt pavement break at Sunny Point which sees so much more traffic than North Douglas. Mr. Clough returned my call and gave assurances that it definitely was to be repaired in 2014, but that due to the budget, he didn’t know if the pavement break was bad enough to qualify for repair before that ... He said that he would look into it and let me know. I never did hear back from Mr. Clough, but now I read about DOT’s “commitment to safety” and that they will be removing pavement painting “to avoid situations that are distracting to motorists and dangerous,” and “We are responsible for keeping the highways safe, and we have to keep the distractions down to a minimum.”

According to a nationwide study, poorly maintained roadways cost U.S. motorists $67 billion per year in additional repairs and operating costs. For Juneau motorists, the total potential unnecessary repair cost is nearly $6.5 million. The study ranked Alaska dead last for the state with the “Highest Fraction of Roads in Poor or Mediocre Condition.” Nice!

During construction, it was estimated that due to the weight of the fill on the wetlands, we should expect the Sunny Point roadway to settle up to 9 inches in relation to the bridge abutments, and therefore periodic adjustments would need to be made. Since project completion, adjustments have been made at least once and it is obviously time to do it again. DOT had the time and money to repave part of their parking lot at Seven Mile this summer, yet has rigorously ignored not only the road hazard mentioned above but numerous others. Motorists routinely swerve, hug the centerline and straddle fog lines to miss pot holes, standing water and failed asphalt joints. They struggle to recover when their vehicle is pulled to one side by deteriorated pavement joints. If “distractions” are important, how about replacing the missing roadway reflectors? I sympathize with motorcycle riders who are especially endangered by such hazards.

DOT has long practiced the “Reactive” rather than “Proactive” model of roadway maintenance. Random, cursory roadway repairs may be attempted, but more needs to be done. According to this same study, it costs a dollar to keep a road in good condition for every $7 you’d have to spend to reconstruct it. If “Safety is a major part of DOT&PF’s mission,” I cannot think of any logical reason for them to so completely disregard it.

Since the roadside memorial has awakened DOT leadership to the need for removing distractions, I hope that they will apply the same standards to the other long neglected roadway deterioration in Juneau and see to it that as many “distractions” as possible can be repaired prior to our dark and much more dangerous winter driving conditions, coming soon.

• Danner is a third generation Juneauite and a retired chief engineer with 32 years of mostly enjoyable experience with DOT & AMHS.

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