Alaska needs credible traffic enforcement, not phantom force of Troopers

My wife and I drove north to Fairbanks on the Parks Highway Monday from Cantwell and while we never saw any signs of the Alaska State Troopers, we saw plenty of reckless drivers hitting 80 mph or 90 mph.

They weren't in fear for their lives or the least bit afraid of getting a speeding ticket.

Last weekend a trip on the Richardson Highway from Valdez to Fairbanks, we also appeared to be traveling in a police-free zone. 

If drivers think they are safe at any speed, they add to the hazards of travel, not just for themselves, but for all others who expect to get where they are going in one piece.

The horrific accident that left four people dead near Byers Lake Monday was the latest reminder of just how dangerous Alaska highways can be. A moment's inattention can lead any driver, even one following the speed limit, to swerve into the wrong lane with terrible consequences. I'm not going to claim that traffic enforcement could have prevented that tragedy

But if increased safety is the goal, and it should be, the state needs to have a credible presence on the Parks Highway and other major roads, not a phantom force.

I realize that traffic is a relatively small part of the job of the Alaska State Troopers and that the public safety problem goes far beyond getting bad drivers to slow down.

We need to hear from the candidates for governor and Legislature about the lack of Trooper coverage statewide, the abysmal traffic enforcement and what they plan to do about it. We also need to know how they plan to pay for it.

A devastating report from last October said the Troopers had lost 36 positions since the budget crisis began four years ago and it had 40 vacant positions it could not fill. 

The agency has been hampered by chronic underfunding and understaffing and it doesn't have enough personnel to cover the 42 posts now open. Eight posts have been closed in the past four years.

"The department’s recruitment and retention efforts face impediments stemming from decreased overall funding, lack of a defined benefits retirement system, noncompetitive pay, and understaffing," the report said.

Last week, Gov. Bill Walker announced an immediate 7.5 percent pay raise for Troopers, while proposing a 7.5 percent pay raise for next year, one that would require legislative approval. A 15 percent pay raise is a step toward getting candidates to fill those vacancies.

The 2017 study said that the North Slope Borough, the Kenai Police Department, the Soldotna Police Department and the Anchorage Police Department all had higher starting salaries. 

The report about the recruitment and retention crisis, which hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, has this stark assessment:

"Reduced trooper positions, combined with the inability to fully staff all budgeted positions has negatively impacted morale, reduced in-service training, and increased overtime costs for routine shift coverage. Further, gaps in the department’s ability to deliver public safety services include reduced ability to respond to routine calls for service (including not responding to some calls that are deemed lower priority), slower response times, reduced travel for proactive law enforcement, and a lack of equipment (e.g. aircraft and boats) to effectively respond to calls for service in rural Alaska."

Megan Peters, the spokeswoman for the Troopers, said there were Troopers on the highways this weekend, but they also had to respond to calls for service and many are already working on overtime. There is some traffic enforcement, just not enough of it.

Dermot Cole4 Comments