Rocks and debris blocked the northbound lane of North Tongass Highway Wednesday evening, Jan. 12. It’s the second time in a month that the slope has sloughed into the roadway. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Smith)

Ketchikan’s mayor is calling on state transportation authorities to stabilize a slide-prone hillside that’s disrupted traffic on North Tongass Highway for the second time in a month.

Photos posted to social media show boulders blocking a lane of traffic Wednesday evening. Drivers reported long delays in the area. No injuries were reported.

Mayor Dave Kiffer says city officials recently met with the state transportation commissioner and discussed the unstable slope at Wolff Point.

“The city is incredibly frustrated,” he said, “because we’ve been pushing the state, specifically DOT, to deal with that hillside for several years now. And all we keep hearing is that, well, they’re having right-of-way issues with the property owners. And given the fact that we’re talking about a public safety issue here, that just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Kiffer says Wednesday’s landslide comes as no surprise. After the last slide on Dec. 14, the city’s public works director sent a letter to the landowner and the Department of Transportation warning that rocks and debris looked likely to slide further.

“In fact, we actually said during the meeting with the commissioner two weeks ago — We said, at this rate, there’s a tree that we pointed to that’s going to be on the highway soon. I guess we didn’t recognize that it was going to be there in three weeks, but here it is,” Kiffer said.

In a statement, a spokesperson said DOT is well aware of problems with the Wolff Point slope, and that it was one of many sites in Southeast with rockfall issues.

He says the department had been working to address the problem, but efforts to stabilize the Wolff Point slope “stalled” in late 2020. He said three other Ketchikan slopes had been repaired as part of a region-wide project.

“We endeavor to proactively leverage our available resources to monitor and address potential hazards along our roadways. Unfortunately, past project efforts along this stretch of North Tongass Highway stalled in late 2020, although the project did result in the repair of three locations in Ketchikan: Shoreline Drive area on Tongass and two locations on South Tongass,” reads a statement from DOT spokesperson Sam Dapcevich.

DOT says it encourages drivers to be on high alert during storms with heavy rains, high winds or rain-on-snow conditions when slopes are more susceptible to rockfall. The department says experts are reviewing the slide and will recommend an appropriate course of action.

The property is owned by KRM, Inc., according to public filings. Reached by phone, an official with the company said she had recently been released from the hospital and was unavailable to discuss the incident. Efforts to reach other company representatives were unsuccessful.

Kiffer, who moonlights as a local historian, says Wolff Point was named for former resident Elmer Wolff. Kiffer says Wolff was a local business owner who lived nearby and successfully advocated for the closure of a garbage dump at the site.