Alaska's haul road

| November 01, 2006

“I told her to bring me one big pancake,” he says as he spreads butter. “It’s a good thing I didn’t ask for two big pancakes.”

During the construction of the road and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s, Fairbanks and Anchorage boomed. Walk into a bar and “You couldn’t buy a drink,” Spears says, because drinks on the house were in front of you before you knew it.

During the heyday, owner-operators got $5,000 to run from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay and back, Spears says. Eventually that dropped to $3,000. A round-trip from Fairbanks now pays about $2,000, he says.

Carlile’s company driver pay for the Fairbanks-Prudhoe round trip, based on hourly and overtime pay, is $700, Keator says. Company drivers start at $16 per hour.

Spears, whose experience merits a higher rate, earned $66,000 in 2005 and $75,000 in 2004, when he worked more. Average Carlile driver pay last year was about $80,000, Keator says. Heavy haul drivers, with loads approaching half a million pounds GVW that can take four or five days one way between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, can make more than $100,000.

Alaska truckers have more leeway on long hauls because the state operates under more liberal hours of service regulations due to its size and low population density. Drivers can be on duty for 20 hours, 15 of those driving, say Carlile officials.

Dale Harris, a Sourdough Express driver from Fairbanks, doesn’t mind pausing over breakfast at Hilltop to recount how on his first Haul Road trip, as a trainee in 1974, the driver rolled their fuel truck going down a 12 percent grade. “By the time he hit the corner, he was doing 50,” Harris says.

The driver broke his back and was put in a pickup, but the pickup’s driver, drunk, overshot another curve and rolled over.

Another pickup driver picked up Harris, then spun out on another curve. The truck plunged down a long hill, but Harris couldn’t bail because the passenger door wouldn’t open.

“It was so steep they dropped a fire hose down to me and I climbed out,” he says. “I was 19 years old then. I told the boss, ‘No more student trips.’”

During the pipeline’s construction, “every curve, every side ditch, had a load of pipe on it,” Spears says. “There’s only two kinds of drivers – the ones who’ve gone in the ditch and the ones that’re going.”

Spears is in the first group. Driving on Thanksgiving Day, 1981, he was beginning to climb a grade and didn’t realize his brakes were too cool from lack of use. “I see the trailer go off, then I see the hood rearing up.” The trailer twisted, flipping the tractor onto its side, leaving him standing up. “I walked out the windshield.”

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