Story last updated at 4:38 p.m. Thursday, June 13, 2002

DOT cutbacks force a lesson in fiscal policy
Sitting here only a week away from the summer solstice, it's hard to think about blowing snow and four inches of slush on the roads. Peering through the darkness and blowing snow of winter seems like a memory of the distant past, but it is exactly what the Legislature and the Department of Transportation have been wrestling with over the past month in the final stretch of the legislative session.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is a giant entity with a budget that grows each year under the weight of fixed costs and negotiated labor contracts. DOT requested an increase of nearly $6 million to cover these fixed inflationary costs for this upcoming year. In tightening the screws on the state budget, the Legislature approved an increase of only $385,600 over the current year.

In response to the "less than we asked for" appropriation, DOT has pulled out the budget-cutting knife, eliminated 69 positions statewide and closed three maintenance stations. One of the stations closed will be the Ninilchik maintenance facility.

Ninilchik may seem like an expendable outpost to some, but folks traveling the Sterling Highway on a dark, snowy winter night hold great peace and comfort with the notion that there are highway maintenance crews there.

When the sloppy snow and slush on the road pulls you from lane to lane, in and out of the ruts across the snow pack and black ice, it's nice to know that somewhere up ahead there will be someone making the road a little safer to travel.

The Ninilchik area will be covered by DOT workers coming from Soldotna and Homer.

The road will still be serviced by the men in the giant machines with the flashing blue and amber lights, but they will likely get there a little later and a little less often.

Each equipment operator from the Homer station will be covering 58 lane miles of road, instead of the 40 lane miles they covered this past year. The Sterling Highway will be their first priority, which means secondary roads like Diamond Ridge Road, North Fork Road, East End Road, and Skyline Drive will all be cleared later and less often.

Is this what we really want?

At some point we have to learn that we can't have it all -- less taxes with the same services. As the school bus is late waiting for the snow plow or we are stuck along the road in a snow drift, we can warm ourselves with the thought that we haven't had to give up any of our Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, nor had to pay much in new taxes.

We can use that money we've saved on a new snow shovel, tow-truck fees and a new set of tire chains.