Southeast road crews prepare for winter maintenance work

Despite budget squeeze, officials say crews are not going to be cut back

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rumors that the state is reducing the Southeast region's maintenance this winter are not true, said a Department of Transportation and Public Facilities official.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"We were slow in addressing the misunderstanding," said Andy Hughes, assistant commissioner. "I think it just snowballed."

Julie Isom, staffer for state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said her office this week was fielding "continual phone calls from constituents in Southeast" about road maintenance.

Tom Brice of the Public Employees Local 71 union in Juneau said last week the equipment operators he represents were frustrated about reductions in resources and overtime.

Petersburg officials released a public service announcement asking people to drive carefully, after a foreman at the DOTPF Petersburg station sent a memo to city officials Oct. 10 warning that crews wouldn't be doing any overtime and only had enough chemicals to de-ice hills and corners of roads. A department spokesman confirmed the rumor on Petersburg public radio KFSK last week, and city officials this Thursday were still under the impression maintenance would be reduced.

But the situation is less dire than reported last week, DOTPF now says.

Crews have, in fact, been advised to go easy on magnesium chloride, the chemical used to de-ice roads. Its cost has increased 40 percent in the last five years.

"We're simply asking them to manage things positively to try and be as conservative as they can - but not at the expense of public safety," Hughes said.

But Southeast crew levels are not changing, said Hughes, and foremen can still authorize overtime at their discretion.

DOT's budget squeeze is real.

"We are confronted with rapidly rising costs," Hughes said.

Last year, the department asked for $515,000 to supplement the roughly $2.5 million commodity budget for Southeast, according to department administrator Nancy Slagel. The department didn't build that cost increase into this year's budget, so a request for a supplement is "very likely," she said.

It's not a given; it depends on prices and how much snow comes, Hughes said.

"We'll do what's necessary to protect the safety of the public that are using our roads," Hughes said.

In Juneau, state workers clear the main highways, including Egan, North Douglas and Back Loop. This winter DOT will have 62 people working crews in 11 Southeast cities.

Statewide, the department prioritizes maintenance in this order: Airports, main roads connecting communities to airports and ferry terminals, school bus routes, and local residential roads.

City snow budget 'healthy'

Juneau is facing higher commodity costs and a shortage in tax revenues this year, but that won't affect snow plowing and road de-icing.

"The city's been pretty good about giving us what we need to get what people expect to get done," said Streets Superintendent Mike Scott. "Road maintenance is very critical to the economy, and cutting back on it has the opposite effect."

"I think we're in really good shape for this winter," said his boss, Public Works Director Joe Buck.

Juneau city workers clear a little more than 100 miles of road, and perhaps 250 lane-miles of road, plus 36 miles of sidewalk and 53 stairways. Their area of responsibility expanded by about 15 miles in the last 10 years as new subdivisions opened.

Winter road maintenance isn't easy to budget for, given the uncertainty of snow. The Public Works department doesn't break out snow-related costs specifically in the annual budget.

To mitigate that uncertainty, the department has software this winter that will track costs more closely, including detailed data on where it's using the most money and resources.

Public Works budgets for an average snow year, but big dumps in the last couple of years have pushed the average up. The city also has a reserve fund for emergencies.

"With global warming and all that, we're actually anticipating higher snow levels the next 10 years," said Buck. "But in Juneau, you never can tell."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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