SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Life, Death and Road Maintenance
By Dave Kiffer


June 20, 2008

Ketchikan, Alaska - Summer is here in the Soggy Southern Southeast.

jpg  Life, Death and Road Maintenance by Dave Kiffer

The sun is randomly peaking out from the storm clouds, "I have a 10 percent off coupon!" is being shouted in a dozen different languages and odd little black cables are snaking across the streets.

Oh, you missed the cables?

They are pretty danged ubiquitous if think to look for them. They signify that summer has arrived. And with it, the traffic engineers who want to gauge just how many people are using our city, borough and state streets and highways.

I remember several years ago, at a public meeting, when a state traffic engineer was trying to get some information about traffic volume.

"Well, how many local people use those streets?" She asked a local politician.

The local paused for a second, trying to be polite.

"Well, all of them." he answered finally.

And that's the rub. In our narrow little community, there are streets that everybody uses. Even with the advent of a few bypasses here and there, it's still a given that just about "all of them" still use the main thoroughfares. And just about every day.

Still, that answer isn't good enough for the engineers who want to be more specific. How many cars, how often?

Once upon a time, Ketchikan had more registered cars than residents. I'm not kidding, back in the early 1980s, there were more registered vehicles than there were men, women and children.

I use to imagine a day in which a car would roll off the ferry and all traffic would come to a stop because all the road space was taken up. It didn't happen, but there were days when you would get caught in the 3 pm "pulp mill rush hour" and swear it was about to.

So it always seems a little funny to me when the "experts" start trying to measure just how busy the streets are. I think we can all agree that they are pretty danged "busy."

Heckfire, there is so much "use" that paving jobs only last about 20 minutes here before the potholes reappear.

And we've had to "rebuild" the Tongass viaduct at least twice in the past 20 years or so because we "love" the durned thing to death.

Earlier this spring, the city complained to the state that the roads were in terrible shape, and the state DOT pretty conceded the point that it was a hopeless cause.

Actually, the state claimed that they couldn't fix the roads this spring because they were out of money until the new fiscal year in July.

That's an answer the DOT would never give folks in the power elite of Alaska in Anchorage and Wasilla. If there was a penny left in any budget line item anywhere and those folks wanted their streets fixed, it would get done.

What the DOT was actually saying was "why bother fixing the roads now (in March). We'll just have to repair them again in July."

You would have thought that the DOT road gurus where talking to folks in some village where the permafrost and the spring ice break up was causing trouble on the "superhighway" river out front.

Not somewhere "big city" like Ketchikan where we are used to the relentless realities of the human drama of "life, death and road maintenance."

Once upon a time, Tongass Avenue was the busiest two-lane highway in America. I know this because the DOT said it was.

They knew it because they had strung all those black cables across roads and then measured how many vehicles had thudded across them.

This was a good thing because it meant the DOT might spend a little more scratch on the upkeep.

Ketchikan's two-laner had more cars rumbling over it than anywhere else in the country. It was nice to be the national champion of something besides per capita liquor licenses.

And I believed them because every time I tried to go anywhere I was stuck in traffic. And those were the days before 15,000 cruise passengers clogged things up by standing in the middle of Front Street to take pictures of the Welcome Arch.

But then one day, I saw something that at least gave me a little pause about the pronouncements from on high from the DOT on Glacier Highway.

It was summer again and the road cables were plopped down just about everywhere.

I was walking out to move my car (it was the era of the meter maids and their yellow chalk sticks) and I saw an acquaintance driving his car back and forth as though he was trying to wear a rut into his parking space.

Then I realized he was driving back and forth over one of the traffic cables.

"What the heck are you doing?" I shouted.

He leaned out his car window.

"Just doing my part for better roads!"


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2008

Publish A Letter
        Read Letters/Opinions

Write the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska