Spring exposes big gouges in 9-month-old curbs


Snow-moving equipment took gouges out of curbs built last year on Old Haines Highway and Front St.

State transportation officials say there's no way to prevent continued gouging of curbs as seen downtown last year, and more recently near the waterfront.

Spring's thaw revealed that snow-moving equipment chewed chunks out of $3.9 million in road improvements in sections of Front Street, Beach Road and Old Haines Highway, including curbs less than one year old.

Plows or loaders gouged out sections – some the size of bread loaves – from roads north of the Port Chilkoot Dock rebuilt to improve access to town by summer visitors off cruise ships.

"Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of our maintenance crews, in high snowfall areas, damage to curbs does occur. Our crews do the best they can, but there is just no realistic way – that I am aware of – to know where the curb is under 24 inches of snow," said Mike Coffey, chief of statewide maintenance and operations for the Alaska Department of Transportation.

Coffey, a member of an international association of road-maintenance officials, said he would take the question to his peers at an upcoming meeting. "I will pose the question to the group. Hopefully, someone has discovered a solution to this challenging problem," he said.

Supervisors of state and municipal plow crews in Haines say the solution is adopting a "rolled curb" or "rolled gutter" design that isn't so much a curb as a concave separation between roadway and sidewalk. They're in place around the Fort Seward parade grounds and were recently incorporated in paving work on Lynnview Drive.

The depression that serves as a gutter tends to fill with snow and ice in winter, leaving a smooth surface – instead of an uneven one – for snow-moving equipment, operators say. Federally funded work on state roads, however, requires adherence to federal standards which don't include the rolled curb design.

"To me, when they're designing all this stuff, first you set up for snowplowing. It all revolves around that," said Ralph Borders, Haines Borough public works foreman. "What you need is an engineer who's driven a plow for 10 years."

Borders acknowledged that borough equipment pushing snow down streets in Fort Seward and across new sidewalks along Beach Road may have caused gouging there. A loader operating perpendicular to a curb is more likely to damage it than a plow moving parallel to it, operators and officials said this week.

Borders said, however, there's not a good alternative to that practice. "There's no place else to go unless we put it in people's yards and driveways."

And damage to other recently built sections – including Second Avenue, Main Street, Old Haines Highway and Front Street – indicates plows also are causing damage.

Contractor Dave Stickler, who built the curbs, said maybe a wheel or similar bumper should be attached to the edge of plows to keep them from striking curbs. Others have suggested sacrificial, plastic edges on the edges of plows and other equipment that would reduce damage to concrete. Such edges are available on smaller, residential snow-moving equipment to avoid damage around homes.

Stickler also is critical of "expansion joints," thin gaps that run parallel to curbs and are required by the state. The joints are intended to allow for expansion and contraction of sidewalks and curbs, but the short width of a sidewalk makes the joints unnecessary, Stickler said. Instead, those gaps fill with moisture, soil and eventually weeds that undermine curbs, Stickler said.

The recent damage comes as no surprise to members of the Haines Borough Planning Commission, who recommended the rolled-curb design and suggested that rebar be added to raised curbs crossed by equipment pushing back berms.

"We predicted it," said commission chair Rob Goldberg. "We said if you don't put in rolled curbs, they're going to get torn up, especially if you don't put rebar in them. For every sidewalk and curb project we recommended rebar, but (the Department of Transportation) has refused every time."

Planning commissioner and equipment operator Donnie Turner said damage to raised-style curbs is inevitable, particularly at places like Beach Road. "The damage is going to happen. There's nothing you can do about that. When you smack that (curb) with a 60,000-pound loader, you're going to knock a chunk out of it," Turner said.

Turner said the commission asked the state, at the very least, to put rebar in curbs where state loaders – and apparently sometimes Haines Borough equipment clearing streets in Fort Seward – push snow to the seaward side of Beach Road. "They wouldn't even do that."

Turner said he is frustrated with the commission being asked their opinion of projects by the state Department of Transportation, apparently in vain. "They're just (consulting the commission) because they're required to do it. They're really not interested in our opinion," he said.

Local DOT foreman Matt Boron said he agrees with the commission about raised curbs. There's no way to mark curbs to avoid collisions with equipment in snowy conditions, he said. He said the municipality was "doing the right thing" with its rolled curbs.

Reinforcing curbs with rebar isn't a good option, Boron said. "Rebar won't keep a plow from taking a gouge out of it. Also, it wouldn't matter with a loader or with long-term cracking."

Boron and Turner both discounted use of plastic or rubber edges on plow blades or loader buckets. Boron said soft-bottomed plows are used in the Lower 48 to reduce road wear but work in tandem with chemical de-icers that aren't used here.

The icy conditions of local roads require use of a metal blade, Boron said. "I don't know how you'd put a piece of rubber or plastic (at the end of a plow blade). It would just tear off."

Boron said that in the coming months the state would repair the curbs damaged during the winter – particularly ones near the cruise ship dock – so they're not so much of an eyesore.

Damaging curbs with plows isn't specific to Haines. In Valdez, where annual snowfall regularly tops 300 inches, curbs also take a beating, said Darren Reese, DOT station foreman there. "It's hard (for operators) to judge distance and contours (when the snow is deep). You can start to get a feel for it after a couple years, but it only takes a couple dinks a year and the damage starts adding up."


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