In Bethel the roads are a wreck, making the traffic unpredictable and dangerous. Drivers are swerving across lanes, narrowly avoiding other cars and pedestrians as they try to dodge extreme potholes that have grown into craters, trenches, ravines, and small ponds. With few city resources on hand, the problem is expected to get worse over the coming months.
In many places it’s hard to tell if there’s more road than holes. Bethel’s warmest winter on record has meant no prolonged freeze for Bethel's streets; there hasn’t been enough cold to cement the asphalt, mud, and gravel in place. Now it’s spring, and the daily freezing at night and thawing during the day means that things are getting worse.
“It’s really a lousy time of year for trying to fix roads,” said Bethel City Manager Pete Williams.
Williams is well aware of the problem and has alerted state legislators, the congressional delegation, and the state Department of Transportation to the issue.
“The good news is that they’ve responded,” he said.
The city hopes to work out an agreement with the state next week on how to repair Bethel’s state highway. The road is paved, and the current rough plan would be to rip out the worst parts, fill them with gravel, and for the city to grade that until the entire highway is repaved next year.
The money is there for the highway work, but there is no more gravel in Bethel. The city has run out and won’t get another load until the barge arrives in June.
No gravel also means that there is no way to repair the equally destroyed gravel city streets. Right now all the city can do is grade them to smooth them over, but there’s no gravel to fill in the gaping holes. And every time the road is graded, a layer of it is pushed away. Without gravel to replace that layers the road sinks lower, collecting more water and worsening the problem. Also, with the snow melting, the streets might not dry until summer.
“It doesn’t really do good to grade these roads when they’re sopping wet," Williams explained. "The first car through, and you’re back to where you originally were.”
But the city’s one functioning grader is out there nonetheless, and working overtime. Williams hopes that the city’s other grader is fixed soon. However, he doesn’t think it will do much good.
“We’re just gonna keep falling further and further behind, and it’s going to get harder and harder to grade. It’s only good for three hours instead of for two or three days,” Williams said.
And it’s going to stay that way until more gravel arrives in June or if the Department of Transportation intervenes.
Fun fact: On the Alaska Department of Transportation web page titled "Report Potholes," there is no contact listed for any community in Western Alaska.