Another issue that could make its way onto Petersburg’s ballot this year is whether to allow off-road vehicles and snow machines on the streets of Mitkof Island. A local four-wheeler owner plans to collect signatures this spring for a vote to allow driving All-Terrain Vehicles and other recreational vehicles on the streets of Petersburg.
Richard Burke wants to make it legal to drive four wheelers and side-by-sides on all streets on Mitkof Island. A side-by-side is a two to six person off road vehicle sometimes with a roof or roll bars. Burke also wants to make it legal to drive a snow machine on local streets when there’s a covering of snow on the pavement.
“It gives people options that are pretty low cost,” Burke said. “You can pick up a four wheeler for really cheap, a used one. Insurance rates are crazy cheap. My insurance agent quoted me $29 a year for liability insurance on my four-wheeler.”
Burke makes multiple arguments for why this is a good idea for Petersburg.
“On nice days parking downtown can be a pain,” he said. “If you replace half those vehicles downtown with ATVs and UTVs or side-by-sides, it’ll be much easier to find a place to park. You spend $7,000 or more on a four wheeler and all you can do is illegally plow snow with it. I’d like to be able to ride to the post office occasionally or to the grocery store. I’m a single guy. Most of the stuff I buy I can fit on my four wheeler.”
Burke has drafted an ordinance based on municipal code from Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island. He’s planning to submit that ordinance to the borough for certification but wanted to wait until after the borough assembly finished making a change to the local requirement for a special election. If the borough certifies the ordinance, then Burke could start collecting signatures to put the issue on the regular election ballot in October.
Petersburg has adopted state administrative code and traffic statutes in the local borough code. Those don’t allow ATVs, side-by-sides or snow machines on any streets. Police chief Kelly Swihart said there’s been limited enforcement of that law and not too many problems with the off-road vehicles.
“We bump into problems once in a while but for the most part people are pretty squared away and don’t violate,” Swihart said. “We do relax requirements a little bit in winter. Lots of people use their ATVs or off highway vehicles to plow snow and we wanna make sure they have the ability to plow that snow. It’s Southeast Alaska we get a lot of snow at times and we don’t wanna hinder that. So as long as people are being responsible while they’re plowing, they’re not going to have a problem with us.”
Swihart said he wants to remain neutral on the possible ballot question. Interestingly, he’s worked as a police officer in places that ban ATVs on roads, places that allow some limited driving on roads and places that allow it outright. Swihart said use of off road vehicles worked in a village like Hoonah.
“We had a process in place for registration, inspections, mandatory insurance, drivers licenses those sorts of things,” Swihart explained. “And we had very little issue, very few issues. We had a limited roadway and a fairly small population. It worked well for us in the village. In Wasilla, we had a limited use where ATVs snow machines were allowed on authorized trails or to cross parking lots to connect authorized trails. Speed limits on the trails were 10 miles and hour. Speed limits in the parking lot were 5 and we had huge issues. We had lots of violations, lots of reckless driving, lots of DUIs (driving under the influence). We had people that were hurt or occasionally even suffered fatalities from crashes. There were lots of issues.”
Swihart started his career in Palmer where off road vehicles were only allowed on private property and not on public streets.
The Special Vehicle Institute of America, which represents ATV companies, opposes their on road use because of safety concerns. The organization says ATVs are not designed for driving on public streets roads and highways and urges statewide bans on the practice.
For his part, Burke does not think safety is a reason to prohibit on road use. “ATVs really aren’t as dangerous as people try to make them out to be,” he said. “You’re twice as likely to die from a drunk driver as you are on an ATV. You’re five and a half times likely to die in another traffic fatality. If you’re slow and paying attention to the other traffic, you’re pretty safe out there. You’re small, you’re easy to get out of the way.”
Burke’s draft ordinance would require off road vehicles to keep under the posted speed limit, stay to the side of the road and let faster traffic pass and would require a brightly colored flag to make the ATVs easier for other drivers to see. Helmets would be required for those under 18, unless the vehicle had a roll cage. ATV drivers going on local roadways would need a driver’s license and complete an ATV safety course unless they already have a motor cycle license. Burke’s ordinance also requires a Petersburg borough registration sticker for off highway vehicles within service area one. That would be a new registration sticker that the borough does not currently require.
A schedule of fines would also become part of local law for violations like not carrying proof of insurance, registration or the proper equipment.
If the borough certifies the ordinance Burke can start collecting signatures. He plans to be taking the petition around seeking signatures in April. He also plans to have the petition at three local businesses, Harbor Way Auto Parts, Homeport Electronics and Alaska Fibre.