23-car pileup clogs Johansen Expressway for three hours

Most of the 23 wrecked vehicles were clustered near the Noyes Slough, toward the west end of the Johansen Expresseway. (Alaska State Troopers)

A 23-car pileup closed a slippery stretch of the Johansen Expressway for nearly three hours Tuesday afternoon. Only minor injuries were reported, but the chain-reaction wrecks closed the two westbound lanes between Peger Road and University Avenue – right after four state Department of Transportation snowplows had passed through the area.

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State Transportation Department spokeswoman Meadow Bailey says the weather we’ve been having over the past week has created the perfect conditions for very slick roadways.

“We had rain last week, followed by freezing temperatures, and then just a continuous dusting of snow,” Bailey said Tuesday. “And when we have conditions like that, there’s really nothing we can do to get that layer of ice off the road.”

But Bailey said Tuesday afternoon that DOT has been trying its best in recent days to clear snow and at least scratch the surface of the ice, and then spread sand on it.

“We have all of our resources out right now — all of our equipment that’s available, all of our staff,” Bailey said. “They’ve been working since last week.”

In fact, Bailey says the crews and equipment were working on the Johansen Expressway Tuesday afternoon, immediately before the drivers of 23 vehicles lost control in a chain-reaction wreck near the western end of the expressway.

“We actually had four pieces of equipment out – two regular plows and two tow-plows,” Bailey said. “They were plowing the full width of the Johansen, and putting down sand really just before this crash.”

Bailey says two snowplows that were sent to make one last run over the Johansen were instead unable to get through, because of the pileup, which closed the two westbound lanes from about 2:45 to 5:30 p.m. She says the wrecks should focus the minds of motorists on the need to employ such wintertime driving habits as slowing down and maintaining a safe following distance.

“This was a section of road that was sanded and plowed very recently,” Bailey said. “And it’s just a reminder to everyone that we need to slow down in these conditions.”

Alaska State Troopers say only minor injuries were reported. Troopers handled the wreck, with help from UAF and city police. Fairbanks police spokeswoman Yumi McCullough says city officers had responded to five wrecks and three motorist-assist calls by about 5 Tuesday evening. She city police urge motorists to just slow down, even if some stretches of road don’t look as slippery as they really are.

“It’s got that thin layer of ice on there and a little bit of snow on top of it,” McCullough said, which “makes it seem like it might be OK.”

Temperatures around the pileup were around 15 below And Troopers say the borough sent a public transit bus to the scene to give motorists and their passengers a place to warm up while Troopers investigated the wreck. Troopers say their investigation into the wrecks is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Bailey says DOT crews will continue to run blades over the ice and spread sand on it. But she says the area’s roads are likely to remain slippery for a while.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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