Thursday, July 23, 2020

2020 isn’t a normal year – including for our road maintenance work

By Barbara LaBoe

2020 has come with a list of challenges and “new normals” for everyone, and that includes the people working to keep our state roads maintained in the midst of a pandemic.

The pandemic and subsequent revenue reductions have left our crews months behind their normal workload and now trying to catch up while also encountering new obstacles. And that's on top of the backlog we were already facing before the pandemic struck.
Our crews are working night and day to complete needed maintenance work, but pandemic delays
and new restrictions means they can't get to everything they normally would this spring and summer.

Simply put, we're not able to do all that we have in past springs and summers. And we know that means the traveling public will notice the difference.

This is particularly tough for our crews, who take immense pride in the roadways they maintain within their communities and the work they do day in and day out. The delays are due to limits on hours and personnel – not the effort of our crews.

How did we get here?
We were already struggling to maintain infrastructure after decades of underfunding for work needed to maintain and preserve our infrastructure. What made it tougher was the pandemic.

The safety of our crews is our priority, so to keep them safe and slow the spread of the virus, in March we sent most of our maintenance crews home. (We also shut down construction projects across the state). This meant most work usually done in the spring – including summer prep – wasn't able to take place. And now subsequent pandemic-related revenue reductions and an April hiring freeze mean there is less money and fewer workers for both summer work and winter prep.
When crews can't maintain 6 feet of distance to complete a task, such as guardrail repair, they must don even more protective equipment, such as these Powered Air Purifying Respirators, which use battery packs to supply filtered air.

While our crews are back, they returned slowly as part of turning the dial on Safe Start and each county's reopening phase. Once on the job they had new protocols and gear that are important but also slows down their normal work flow. Then in June mandatory state government furloughs and hiring freezes were announced, leaving crews with even less time to complete the already backlogged work and unable to hire the temporary summer crews that normally assist our efforts.
New safety standards are important but also require more rest and hydration breaks
as crews work in warm summer months.

Weather-dependent work limits our options
Much of our work is season- and weather-dependent, so pushing it further into 2020 to make up some of the missed items won't work in all cases. Some examples of that are:
  • Roadside mowing. Spring mowing wasn't able to take place and mowing during hot summer months is a fire hazard. So we need all travelers to be extra cautious of fire dangers this year to help prevent brush fires.
  • Roadside trash, which was already a problem, is one the items our crews have to forego to prioritize safety repairs and work. And our volunteer Adopt-A-Highway crews are suspended for their own safety during the pandemic. This makes prevention even more crucial – please secure all loads and properly dispose of any trash you accumulate traveling.
  • Roadway crack repairs. These are best done in early spring while the cracks are still at their largest. Filling them in summer isn't as efficient since the cracks shrink as the warmer roadway expands, so a new repair can fail as soon as the roadway freezes again in the winter.
  • Paving is delayed in areas due to spring delays and overall backlogs. That also means less pavement striping and painting, which are also summer work staples and require long stretches of dry weather.
  • Some work – such as installing new light poles – has been delayed because it requires crews working closely together, which requires additional safety equipment. (Emergency work requiring close contact still continues).
None of these decisions or new adjustments are easy – it's a struggle to not accomplish everything we would in a “normal” summer. But 2020 is a year of altered expectations for everyone and this is yet another unfortunate example.

Please be patient with any delays or reduced service you see on our roadways and take any precautions you can to help ease the stresses on the system. It's an adjustment for everyone, but we also know that working together we can make it through this just as we've met other pandemic challenges.