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From Winter Woes to Summer Roads, Maintenance Crews Clearing the Way

Sunset on the road from Teller to Nome. (Photo by Carol Seppilu, summer of 2020.)

May 2, 2024

Ben Townsend, News Director

A short drive towards the outskirts of Nome reveals the scars left by a long winter. Bumps and ruts toss cars- and their passengers- up and down from their seats. As the snow melts in early May, brave travelers can make it just over 20 miles out of town before encountering impassable snow drifts. The tall task of clearing and repairing the roads surrounding Nome are well underway, with the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) spearheading the effort. 

The operation begins with the Dexter Bypass in late April, followed by three main roads that extend outward from the city. Calvin Schaeffer is the Western District Superintendent for the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. As of May 1, Schaeffer estimates that the Kougarok Road is cleared up to mile 22, the Teller Road up to mile 10.5, and the Council Road up to mile 9.5. 

One of the more challenging aspects of the spring thaw is managing water drainage and preventing road washouts commonly caused by frozen culverts. These are pipes made of metal or plastic that allow water to flow under the road from one side to the other. In the winter culverts tend to freeze, blocking all water flow. This causes water to take other paths like over the road or into the roadbed. This can leave large depressions in the road and in severe cases cause the entire road to collapse, a situation Schaeffer prefers to avoid.

“Not addressing frozen culverts can lead to washouts on the roads. This becomes a larger scale operation when it happens since we have to mobilize a team to repair the road,” Schaeffer said.

The operation employs a blend of state-owned dozers and contracted machinery to clear and grade the roads. Schaeffer’s team also utilizes resources from other DOT divisions to meet the demanding workload. 

“We have to use folks from our airport and other DOT crews to help the highway guys out to make this all happen,” he added.

Retaining qualified operators has proven a challenge for the DOT according to Schaeffer. This has made maintenance efforts even more difficult over the last five years. Schaeffer is hopeful that with a stable team and favorable weather conditions, the spring and summer road maintenance in Nome will proceed smoothly.

“This year is looking better so I’m hoping we have a mellow spring melt and washouts don’t occur,” Schaeffer said. 

After the crew clears the roads of snow they’ll remove their snow plows and switch into summer tires. They’ll shift their focus to grading roads, patching potholes, cutting brush, and other activities crucial for keeping the roads safe. As residents of Nome grow more eager to make it out of town for recreation and subsistence activities, their work couldn’t come any sooner.

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