Sidewalk snow removal a focal point at winter maintenance forum

Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 7:30 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Community members filed into the theatre at Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center Tuesday for Fairbanks Area Surface Transportation (FAST) Planning’s sixth annual Winter Maintenance Forum to listen in on various agencies’ snow clearing strategies.

While sidewalks might be generally to the side of roadways, during the forum, they were often at the center of discussion.

Eight agencies delivered comprehensive presentations about their services, but a refrain among many in the audience and on the stage was the need to improve snow removal on pedestrian paths.

At the start of the forum, FAST Planning Executive Director Jackson Fox said his organization receives more public comments about undermaintained walkways than any other transportation-related issue.

He also said getting the problem addressed is at the forefront of FAST planning’s goals.

“I think looking at the vision, towards our future, we want to make maintenance equitable for all users,” Fox said. He added, “some folks don’t own a car, they rely on walking to that transit stop to get on the bus to get to their destination.”

Placing more focus on walkways might become easier with a shift in funding structure, according to Fox, and he said he believes FAST Planning has Alaska Department of Transportation’s (AKDOT) support in moving away from the “one-bucket” money source for maintenance to put aside some funds earmarked for contracting out snow removal for foot trafficked areas.

Fox said he hopes “in talking with the governor and the legislature ... we could get some maintenance funding that is dedicated to winter maintenance of these non-motorized facilities, so a bucket of funding that’s dedicated for this work.”

But added or reallocated funds would only begin forming the solution. A lack of trained staff puts up perhaps the biggest roadblock when trying to achieve winter maintenance objectives, including sidewalk clearing.

Every participating agency except the City of North Pole Public Works reported staffing shortages — sometimes severe.

“Our vacancy rates are crazy: 25 percent to 30 percent — running right now 35 precent in Fairbanks for our operators,” said AKDOT Northern Region Maintenance and Operations Manager Dan Schacher.

The October Issue of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Economic Trends magazine shows that highway maintenance workers have a “higher than expected” yearly turnover rate given the average wages. The turnover rate is 67 percent, while the average wage is $27.94 per hour.

With others echoing AKDOT’s hiring and retention woes, some, like the City of Fairbanks Public Works, are trying to find creative short-term answers.

“We’ve had to move to kind of utilizing laborers instead of operators mostly because we don’t have the operators, so we’re kind of composite crewing and utilizing laborers where we can use laborers and operators at the same time so that we can put more of an effort towards sidewalks,” Foreman Jeremiah Cotter explained at the forum.

Cotter described how equipment plays a role in this process, too.

“To try to answer the request for more and more sidewalk maintenance, we’re now utilizing our laborers on what they call a snow raider – they kind of stand on the back of it, and they’re able to plow the sidewalks with that,” he said.

“With these little guys,” Cotter continued, referring to the snow raiders, “they’re able to kind of get around behind some of that stuff [on the sidewalks] so that we can get that snow off so that someone doesn’t have to climb over a little snow hill in the middle of the sidewalk.”

He said the City of Fairbanks Public Works soon expects to get another snow raider through an AKDOT grant.

A member of the audience, Randolph Bowell, a longtime advocate for disabilities services in the Interior, was sure to point out the importance of routinely cleared foot paths and well-equipped bus stops.

“For safety purposes I know that persons that have suffered either a traumatic brain injury or broken limb or something of some substance would need to have these kinds of areas for public transit modified appropriately so that there are no miscues or possible injuries,” he told Newscenter Fairbanks after the meeting.

In addition to providing an overview of area services and gathering community feedback, the meeting also served to connect the community with tools and information related to road service.

The FAST Planning director reminded the audience of the free and easy-to-use maps available on the organization’s website, such as the one debuted at last year’s forum showing which agency maintains a given road.

Another interactive map outlines priorities for maintaining non-motorized route maintenance — in other words, bike routes, trails, sidewalks, etc.

Participating agencies at the forum included FAST Planning, AKDOT, City of Fairbanks Public Works, University of Alaska Fairbanks, City of North Pole Public Works, Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation, MACS Transit and Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

Dorian Gray of Bankstown Bike and Ski also described notable features of fat tire bikes at the end of the forum before drawing a winner to take home a new bike courtesy of Gray’s Shop.