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Fairbanks, Wasilla officials raise concerns with proposal to allow ATVs, snowmachines on state roads

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Published: Apr. 6, 2021 at 7:39 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Snowmachines, all-terrain vehicles and even hovercraft could soon be allowed on state roads that have a maximum speed limit of 45 miles per hour or less.

The proposal is part of a regulation package announced last month by the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Public Safety.

The House Transportation Committee learned more about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration’s plan on Tuesday. Dave Donley, a deputy commissioner with the Department of Administration, told the committee that the proposal could help “provide Alaskans (with) the greatest opportunity to safely and affordably travel throughout the state.”

To use state roads, riders would need to hold a Class D driver’s license, liability insurance and use machines with a license plate, a headlight and good brakes.

Across Alaska, many rural communities have their own rules in place for off-road vehicles. Communities like Nome have established policies to allow snowmachines and four-wheelers to ride on municipal roads, but those rules don’t extend to state roads.

Rep. Mike Cronk, a Tok Republican, said he was torn about the Dunleavy administration’s proposal. He said it could be “technically beneficial” in parts of Alaska, like Tok, where people currently ride snowmachines and four-wheelers every day on state roads illegally.

This change would effectively bring the law in line with the realities of daily life in Alaska’s villages.

Cronk said he wasn’t sure if increasing off-road vehicle access to state roads would be beneficial for urban Alaska.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities provided the House committee with a list of roads in Alaska that could soon be open to off-road vehicles. The list includes small stretches of busy streets in Anchorage like Minnesota Drive and Benson Blvd.

Dr. Nathan Belz, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at University of Alaska Fairbanks, presented to the committee about his safety concerns. His research has been informed by the state’s strategic highway safety plan that aims to reduce fatalities and injuries on Alaska’s roads.

“These proposed changes are counterproductive to that particular goal,” Belz said in an interview with Alaska’s News Source.

Craig Compeau, the owner of Fairbanks-based ATV and snowmachine store, has long called for off-road vehicle access on state roads. He said it may not work in metropolitan areas, but it could make a positive change on more rural streets.

“I would say that 90% of the towns and cities in Alaska would give this the thumbs up,” Compeau added.

To provide Alaskans the greatest opportunity to safely and affordably travel throughout the state, the Department of...

Posted by Governor Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Donley said communities that want to opt out of the new rules could choose to do so. However, some boroughs may not be able to do that easily.

Second-class boroughs, like the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, don’t have road enforcement powers. If these regulations are implemented, local police and Alaska State Troopers may need to follow the new rules, even if the boroughs don’t want them.

When asked by committee members if those boroughs could be allowed to opt out, Donley said he had heard those concerns and that the regulation package could be amended after the public comment period ends next Sunday.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward will introduce a resolution opposing the plan before the borough’s assembly, likely next week.

“While allowing ATVs on state and local roads may make sense in many of our rural communities where ATV’s are the primary source of local transportation, allowing ATVs on roads in our urban areas is asking for a tragedy and is extremely short sighted,” Ward said through a prepared statement. “We can be supportive of ATV users on trails designated specifically for that purpose.”

Officials with the cities of Fairbanks and Wasilla are similarly skeptical.

Jim Matherly, the Fairbanks mayor, sent a letter as public testimony, expressing safety and administrative concerns brought to him by department heads about the proposed change.

Although not yet endorsed by the Fairbanks City Council, Matherly wrote that if the state regulations are implemented, Fairbanks municipal code may be amended to stop four-wheelers and snowmachines from being used in the city.

The Wasilla public works director also has concerns. Archie Giddings wrote to legislators on behalf of the mayor and police chief, saying the change would pose a “huge safety problem” on urban streets.

“The City of Wasilla would certainly seek an ordinance to restrict the use of ATVs (and) snowmobiles on local roads as a safety measure to protect the citizens in our community,” Giddings said.

The state’s broad definition of an “all-purpose vehicle” and how licensing would work also came under scrutiny during Tuesday’s hearing.

Jenna Wright, the deputy director of the Division of Motor Vehicles, said off-road vehicle users would need to get a Class D driver’s license to operate on state roads. The test would be the same as for car and truck drivers, and current holders of that license wouldn’t need to get a new one.

Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, asked if his current driver’s license would allow him to use a hovercraft on state roads under the current proposal from the Dunleavy administration. Wright said it would.

Public comments on the regulation that would allow four-wheelers and snowmachines on state roads can be made until 4:30 p.m. on April 18. Comments on the proposed licensing change can be made until 5 p.m. on April 15.

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