Snow is coming, is WSDOT ready to keep the passes open?
We’re getting our first taste of snow in the Cascades. Will the state have enough people to keep the passes open this year?
This was an issue last year. Not only did the passes get record snowfall in a short time frame, but the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) also went into the winter season down a lot of employees.
More Chokepoints: A survival guide for driving in the rain
The maintenance department was already down from its traditional winter staffing levels, but the Governor’s state employee vaccine mandate made those matters worse. The refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine cost 175 maintenance workers their jobs, some retired, and others lost their jobs. That put the maintenance department down more than 200 people heading into last winter.
WSDOT’s Tina Werner said they are in better shape heading into this winter.
“Our winter operations staffing is still down from a normal winter, but it’s improved significantly from this time last fall,” Werner said.
The maintenance department has 93 more people than last year, but Werner said they are still short.
“Last winter, we were short roughly 220 winter ops positions, and as of this November, we’re down to 128 personnel vacancies,” she explained.
There is still a nationwide shortage of people to do this kind of work, and WSDOT is fighting agencies across the state and private companies to fill these vacancies. The most significant need is for people with a commercial driver’s license to work the trucks and plows. A close second is a need for mechanics.
“If we can’t keep our equipment running, even if we were fully staffed, we can’t get rigs out on the road,” Werner said.
WSDOT is offering CDL classes to its current employees to get more of them able to drive the trucks, but that takes time.
“Our staff has started that training now, but in some cases, they may not be ready to have it completed for this winter season,” Werner said.
The state will also reach out to other agencies to help with snow removal if they are having trouble keeping the roads open. That would allow the state workers to focus on the passes and the lowland freeways, should they need de-icer or plowing.
“We will continue to explore the possibility of agreements with local jurisdictions and private contractors so they could assist with some snow and ice operations on secondary routes,” Werner said.
The vaccine mandate remains in place for any state workers, but contractors with limited public involvement no longer have to provide proof of vaccine.
“Contractors that are primarily working outside will no longer be required to provide a vaccine declaration to the state,” she said.
And while the state continues to try and fill those remaining open positions, Werner said there is a lot that we can do, as drivers, to keep the passes open too.
“Many of our pass closures are due to driver behavior,” she said. “People going too fast or failing to have the proper equipment. Everyone plays a role in making sure that our passes stay open.”
That means follow the posted restrictions. If the signs say chains are required, that’s not a suggestion; it’s a requirement. Don’t be the driver of a front-wheel car that spins out because you failed to put chains on. Don’t be that semi-driver that fails to do so either. We had more than a few of those last winter.
And a special message to the large pickup and four-wheel drive drivers. Four-wheel drive doesn’t help you stop. Please watch your speeds and following distances.
Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.