CHOKEPOINTS

Blame the weather, not vaccine mandates, for the current pass closures

Jan 4, 2022, 5:40 AM

snow plow, pass closures...

US 2 Stevens Pass on Monday. (WSDOT Twitter)

(WSDOT Twitter)

It’s been almost impossible to cross the Cascades for the last few days as the mountain passes have been closed because of heavy snow and winds. Is this a byproduct of the staffing shortages at the Washington State Department of Transportation, created in part by the vaccine mandate that took effect in October?

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Mountain pass webcams

That was the first reaction I heard from KIRO Radio listeners and on social media when pass closures started early last month.

“The closures are caused by the mandate,” some told me.

Others said, “Governor Inslee is closing the roads because of the mandate.”

The head of WSDOT’s maintenance department, James Morin, said that just isn’t what happened.

“Some of the closures last a little longer than we would like or maybe have historically happened, but I wouldn’t say that we’ve had closures that are a direct result [of the mandate],” he said Monday. “Meaning, ‘Hey, we don’t have anybody to run the plows so we’re going to close I-90.’ That has not happened.”

A lot of the early Snoqualmie Pass closures to end 2021 were caused by unprepared drivers — drivers who failed to follow the chain requirements and spun out. Morin and his team were able to shift people to those hot spots and had enough people to do the job.

The more recent, longer-term pass closures have had to do with heavy snow and heavy winds, creating near white-out conditions.

Morin does admit there there are times he doesn’t have enough people, even with the shifting around, to run at full operations.

“There’s no doubt that we have had situations where we have trucks with no drivers, and that bums you out when you can see a resource there that we would normally be using, and we can’t use it,” he said.

Morin’s maintenance department came into October 2021 down about 150 people due to a global shortage of drivers and mechanics. The vaccine mandate from the governor for state workers then cut his staff by more than 150. So the agency entered the snow season down close to 300 people.

WSDOT was doing fine until the cold snap after Christmas hit just about every region in the state.

“When everybody’s having the problem, we can’t shift resources around to the extent that we had been able to on some of the events that we had earlier in the season,” Morin said.

The long-term snow and cold temperatures came close to draining WSDOT’s supplies, too. Morin had to be very careful to prioritize where to deliver the salt and other supplies to sheds that were running out.

The maintenance department still needs about 140 people to get back to its traditional staffing levels, but Morin said those on the job are dedicated to opening the roads as soon as possible.

“We’ve had some folks that have worked enough consecutive days where we had to say, ‘I know you’re willing to come in, but you need to take a day off,'” Morin said. “That’s why we have been able to sort of make up for that deficit in staffing that we have.”

Many maintenance workers chose to work over Christmas and on New Year Day — some having worked 10 days straight without a break — to keep the roads open.

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Blame the weather, not vaccine mandates, for the current pass closures