By Jonathan L'Ecuyer
Massachusetts has saved nearly $12 million in the year-plus since it started using civilian flaggers to direct traffic at some road construction sites, state officials say, providing factual underpinning to what has become a hotly debated issue in the 2010 gubernatorial election campaign.
A job-by-job breakdown provided to The Associated Press shows how the state saved $28,000 during four relatively slow days in May by paying lower wages for flaggers to either replace or supplement the police officers who formerly had exclusive rights to stand watch over highway and side-road work zones.
One of the local projects cited in the breakdown was construction along Route 133 on Causeway in Essex. Employing civilian flaggers as opposed to police officers on that project reportedly saved the state $1,840 for the week of May 10-14 alone.
Essex Police Chief Peter Silva said Monday he's still not convinced.
"The savings that are being described may be mirage-like," Silva said. "They are telling us that this is going to save us a substantial amount of money; I want to see where the savings are."
Silva also highlighted the dangerousness of the work, and the value of having extra police officers on the road.
"It's second to none having a police officer on a work site," he said. "They have instant communication with the police, ambulance, and fire officials in our community, which the flaggers currently do not have."
The Study: A Snapshot
The four-day breakdown for all of the figures used in the report covered May 10-14, the work week immediately after the AP asked highway officials for a spreadsheet of traffic control payments for all current state projects using flaggers.
The remaining road work in the state that week, occurring before the height of the summer construction season, was overseen by police officers.
They are still used exclusively in high-speed or otherwise dangerous locations.
In Essex, a police officer was hired Monday to manage traffic coming out of Woodman's, Dunkin' Donuts, and Tom Shea's, Silva said, adding he commended the state for putting an officer down there.
The May snapshot included several examples of flaggers being paid a higher hourly rate than police officers.
But Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan and Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky noted a lower flagger pay rate in the majority of the 31 jobs outlined in the case study.
Police pay is determined by union contract; the flagger rate paid by the state is set by the contractor. Officials have calculated the state saved $11.9 million overall between October 2008 and April 2010.
"The conflicts tend to get in the paper, and the higher bids tend to get into the paper, but the day-to-day reality is a cost savings for us. And those are capital dollars we are now free to spend elsewhere," Paiewonsky said.
How the policy works
Under one of Gov. Deval Patrick's policy changes, highway officials — not police officers — now clearly control work sites.
While they consult police, they ultimately decide how many flaggers or officers are used.
In another change, traffic control costs are now part of the overall bid price for road construction projects — rather than a separate fee tacked onto the final bill.
Construction companies that formerly had no incentive to reduce costs in the field now risk being outbid at the outset if they don't devise an efficient construction plan.
Flaggers also do not receive the overtime or mandatory minimum pay that many police officers still receive, allowing the state to save on overall traffic control costs even in cases where flaggers receive a higher hourly rate than their police counterparts.
Most police contracts call for a minimum of four hours' pay, regardless of the duration of a job, and some require that any additional time be paid in two-hour increments, regardless of how long the additional work may last.
Essex patrolman Rob Gilardi, president of the department's union, sent a letter to Thomas Broderick, the state's deputy chief engineer for safety and mobility, offering to waive the additional minimum hours structure beyond the first four-hour period in an effort to get police officers back on the road in Essex.
"All I've been hearing is the police aren't budging, but we're willing to help; we sent it in a while ago and haven't heard anything back," Gilardi explained Monday.
Conflicts on the Causeway
The Route 133 construction project has, at times, been a flashpoint in the dispute.
Officials with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation removed its civilian traffic flaggers from the Essex Causeway project on May 7 and replaced them with a police detail after a clash between one of the flaggers and a motorist.
In the course of the incident, the flagger apparently struck the vehicle "near the windshield," breaking the sign. Highway officials have said that flagger has not returned to the job.
In April, a flagger was directing traffic through the construction site and filed an official report with police April 7 after a driver refused to follow his directions to stop.
In that case, after several drivers failed to stop properly upon the flagger's command, the worker began verbally ordering the vehicles to stop, according to statements made to authorities. The flagger's complaint stems from drivers yelling obscenities at him in response — and still not stopping.
When they are on duty, civilian flaggers have the authority to issue orders to motorists.
There were at least two similar clashes in 2009, when a flagger and motorist exchanged words in September, and when a flagger allegedly waved on two cars simultaneously in July, forcing one driver to slam on the brakes, according to police.
There have also been nearly a half dozen incidents between motorists and flaggers in Essex just this month.
Associated Press material is included in this report.
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the numbers
The following is a breakdown obtained through a public records request by The Associated Press of traffic control spending, covering the period of May 10 to May 14, for road projects in the Cape Ann/Essex County area using civilian flaggers instead of, or as supplement to, police officers.
The rates for both police officers and flaggers are hourly wages the state would have to pay, and do not include added benefit payments.
Route 133, Essex — Officer: $43; Flagger: $20; Savings: $1,840
Route 1, Danvers — Officer: $40; Flagger: $55; Overpayment: $445
SOURCE: Massachusetts Department of Transportation