KINGWOOD — Faced with a lack of personnel, Division of Highways (DOH) District 4 Engineer Don Williams is thinking outside the box to get road work done.
Despite recent work fairs to recruit DOH county personnel, most crews in the district are understaffed, Williams told the North Central Caucus on Roads on Wednesday.
Monongalia County is supposed to have 42 personnel and is at about half that, with 18 field workers. Preston is 14 below its quota of 53 workers, leaving 35 road crew workers. (Each county has a secretary, mechanic, storekeeper and supervisor.)
The problem is often salaries, he noted. The state can’t compete against gas companies, some of which are paying CDL licensed workers twice as much as the DOH. Six employees left in one week in Doddridge County, Williams said.
To meet the core needs of the district — maintenance like pothole repair, ditching and brush cutting — he made staff adjustments about three weeks ago.
“What I’ve done is divide the district into three zones, consisting of two counties [each]: Preston and Taylor County together; I put Monongalia and Marion County together; and I put Harrison and Doddridge County in a zone,” Williams said.
Zones are overseen by the maintenance engineer, maintenance assistants and highway administrators.
Employees are mandated to work a minimum of 50 hours per week, with an additional 10 hours per week optional on Saturday. A minimum of 40 hours will be worked in the employee’s home county. The location of the extra mandatory 10 hours and optional 10 hours will be based on the highest priorities in that zone.
Employees are paid time and a half for hours worked above 40. The money is in the budget because of the number of unfilled positions, Williams said.
Based on feedback at the Secretary of Transportation’s meetings this summer with the DOH and county commissions, Williams also changed how graders are being used.
“Because of the shortage of workforce, our graders weren’t being worked or utilized as much as they could,” Williams said. “We had a choice: Put an operator on grader or put an operator working on asphalt.”
So with these extra hours, he made it mandatory that graders work a minimum of 40 hours per week.
“I’ve instructed them to take those graders and work on your Priority 3 routes, your gravel routes that have all the big potholes that have not been touched for years,” Williams said. “We may not do the best job of ditching, we’re not going to replace the pipes, but what we’re doing is taking those roads … and we’re probably going to do three to four times more by the end of the year.”
Preston County, in particular, has a lot of these roads, he noted.
Looking for solutions
Williams put a lot of thought into how to change the system to do a better job maintaining roads.
“I believe the best solution of this is for me to put maintenance contracts out of what I call performance contracts on the U.S. routes,” Williams explained.
By this, he means issuing contracts on sections of primary roads for multi-year contracts. During those years, the contractor with the winning bid would have to pull the ditches, patch potholes and mow the road a set number of times annually.
This would allow the DOH to pull maintenance crews off those routes and do secondary roads. “The other effect … I think it would stimulate local business,” Williams said.
“For example, what do you need for mowing? You need the right kind of tractor with the right kind of equipment. How many people in Preston County probably have that stuff sitting there?”
So a contractor might hire those folks to do the mowing, the engineer said.
“That’s what I’ve been hoping all along,” Preston Commission President Craig Jennings said. “I personally think that’s the best way to go.”
Preston contractor Richie Stone was at the meeting and said he thinks the plan is doable if the cycle is ongoing.