Flaggers: Savings, But Not At The Cost Of Safety
By: Michael C. Bailey
When Governor Deval L. Patrick announced that Massachusetts would replace police officers with civilian flagmen at certain roadway construction projects, supporters said the move would yield big savings without compromising public safety.
Last month Luisa Paiewonsky, administrator of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Highway Division, provided evidence to support the former claim, announcing that the use of civilian flaggers has saved the state $12 million since the practice was adopted in October 2008.
“We have realized significant savings in traffic mitigation while continuing to maintain the safest roads and work zones in the nation,” Ms. Paiewonsky said in a press release.
Yet the use of civilian flaggers continues to draw fire, namely from police unions who assert that public safety has indeed suffered. Over the weekend more than 1,000 police officers – as many as 2,000 by some counts – picketed outside Fenway Park, where Gov. Patrick welcomed guests to the annual National Governors Association meeting, to protest the governor’s support for the civilian flagmen policy, as well as his lack of support for Quinn Bill funding.
Under the regulations that went into effect in 2008, civilian flaggers are to be used on roadways defined as “low traffic – high speed” roads, which include divided and undivided public roads with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour or greater, but with a maximum traffic volume of 4,000 vehicles per day; and on low speed roads, which include divided and undivided public roads with a speed limit of less than 45 MPH.
Police officers are used on high-speed roads, meaning any public road with a speed limit of 45 MPH or higher, although flaggers may be used if the work site is physically separated from the flow of traffic by a jersey barrier or other temporary hard barrier.
According to MassDOT, there are more than 140 projects currently underway in Massachusetts using civilian flagmen, including projects in Falmouth and Barnstable.
“A Safe Program”
The Patrick Administration claimed that there have been no accidents at these sites. Ms. Paiewonsky backed up that claim in a telephone interview, stating that there have not been “any incidents attributed to the use of civilian flaggers…no injuries and no fatalities. We’re very pleased with that.”
Prior to implementing the program, MassDOT “did extensive homework” to create detailed regulations that ensured the safety of flaggers, work crews, and motorists alike. All aspects of a work detail, from flagger placement to advisory signage, is spelled out in a “flip book” that goes to all personnel working a road construction project.
Civilian flaggers must be trained and certified, and flaggers must also be certified in first aid when they first receive flagman certification. Certification must be renewed every two years.
Savings – For Most
Other opponents of the practice insist that the savings are not as great as state officials claim.
The Associated Press last week examined a random sampling of 31 work sites across the state and compared the actual cost of a civilian flagger for four days’ work over the projected cost of a police officer working a detail on that same project.
In 11 instances the flagman cost more, with the overpayments ranging from $16 to $1,440. The median overpayment was $300. For the rest of the sites, the savings ranged from $40 to $8,231, with a median savings of $800.
Barnstable was listed in the AP study as a town that realized a savings through the use of flaggers: $3,868 on a project on Route 6A, while a project on Route 28 in Falmouth cost that town $688 more than it would have cost with a police detail on the job.
The state did not clarify how much of the officers’ pay was for actual time worked; typical police contracts require officers to be paid for a minimum period of time, usually three to four hour blocks, regardless of how little time is actually spent on the work site.
Ms. Paiewonsky explained that flaggers’ pay rates are subject to bid as part of a given roadwork project, and some contractors submitted bids that paid higher than the prevailing wage. “This happens in only a small number of cases,” she said. “The majority of contractors bid far lower rates – and even that discrepancy is made up by the absence of four-hour minimum payments for flaggers.”
The state hopes to address this issue through new language in all roadwork contracts, which gives the DOT the right to substitute its own staff flaggers if the contract bid for flagger wages comes in too high. More than 1,300 DOT employees began training last month, when the new language went into effect, to become certified flaggers.
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