CHOKEPOINTS

WSDOT workforce shortage could mean more closed roads this winter

Nov 9, 2021, 5:54 AM
WSDOT, roads...
WSDOT working Snoqualmie Pass in November 2021. (Chris Sullivan/KIRO Radio)
(Chris Sullivan/KIRO Radio)

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state workers as well as a global lack of workers is expected to impact Washington state’s ability to clear the snow from roads and keep the mountain passes open.

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It’s just going to be different this year. That’s what James Morin kept saying during my conversation with him Monday. Morin is the maintenance operations manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation. He is warning drivers that it will likely take longer to clear roads after windstorms or large snow storms, whether they are in the mountains or in Western Washington.

“Compact snow and ice may be on the road a little longer than we’re used to seeing,” Morin said. “That transition time after a storm is over to the time we’re back to bare and wet, and they (the drivers) can travel a faster rate, is just going to take a little longer.”

Plows might only clear two lanes of I-5 through Seattle, instead of all lanes. There might be longer response times, or no response at all, depending on where an area falls on the priority list, but Morin was adamant that he will not jeopardize safety — not of the traveling public or of his workers.

“If we have a roadway that we simply don’t have the resources to get to, we may see some closures that we’re not used to seeing,” Morin said. “If we are confronted with ‘it’s not safe to keep this road open,’ we’re going to close that road.”

So how did we get here?

The maintenance department usually carries about 1,500 workers for the winter season across the state. Morin said they came into the state vaccine mandate already down people.

“We came into October with about 150 people below where we wanted to be, and then we found ourselves on the 19th of October another 150 below,” he said. “That’s a big hit.”

After not getting vaccinated, 157 workers were fired. There were another 12 retirements, nine of which were over the vaccine. But Morin wants everyone to know that the remaining workers are dedicated to keeping the roads open.

“There’s been a lot of speculation running around out there that there are going to be passes or roadways that we just walk away from, and that certainly is not the case,” he said. “We still have 1,200 staff, and we’ll be swarming to the storm.”

And it’s not just the plow drivers or sanding truck drivers. Morin said they’re down 20-30% of their mechanics, which could be a huge problem.

“One mechanic might be able to keep five, six, or seven trucks running, especially as we get into these long storms,” Morin said.

Morin has already started contracting out some of the more routine maintenance on smaller rigs, things like oil changes, to keep those mechanics focused on the bigger trucks, and the recruiting push is on now that the pandemic hiring freeze is over.

If you are a mechanic or have a commercial driver’s license, WSDOT is looking for you because this shortage isn’t just about winter. It will be the same problem in the spring, with guardrail repair, road maintenance, and clearing brush.

And, by the way, we the drivers can help WSDOT make do with less this winter by planning ahead. Get good tires. Carry your chains and know how to use them. Slow down. Pack water, food, and blankets, in case the roads are closed. The less drivers spin out or bump into each other, the more time WSDOT workers can focus on keeping the roads open.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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WSDOT workforce shortage could mean more closed roads this winter