By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The snowstorm that hit Wyoming two weeks ago placed in sharp relief the shortage of qualified snowplow drivers needed to keep the state’s highways clear during weather events.
Luke Reiner, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, told Cowboy State Daily that there are many WYDOT stations around the state that are not staffed as well as the department would like.
“We’re probably about 15% down in our permanent staffing in terms of snowplow drivers,” he said. “And then additionally, we always hire about 40 temporary technicians every year, and have really had a lot of difficulty hiring those.”
In an effort to keep roads open during winter weather events, Reiner said the department has a few strategies. One is the department’s “Snow Plan,” a system of prioritizing roads for clearing which he said worked well last year.
“We said, ‘Hey, every road is not created equal,’” he explained. “And so we’re going to prioritize our interstates, and those are 24-hour roads, and then we’ve got some other roads that are 20 hours, and we will keep that plan in place.”
Additionally, Reiner said the department can move available staff around the state to work on roads that are hardest hit.
“If it’s not a storm that’s across the entire state, we have sent operators from one area to another,” he said, pointing out how the department managed staff during last winter’s major snowstorm in the southeast corner of Wyoming. “So the crews in the southeast, they worked locally, and they started working outward. And then we had crews that attacked it from the north and from the west. And so we used all available forces to clear the roads really, pretty dramatically fast.”
But the shortage of full-time workers was painfully felt in the northeast corner of the state earlier in October. So Reiner said the department used all the resources it had available.
“Anybody who … had a (commercial drivers license) and that was qualified to run a plow truck, they put in a plow truck,” he said. “So mechanics that used to be maintainers, and safety officers that used to be maintainers, and traffic techs that used to be maintainers. In my mind, that was great initiative, and a great use of available resources.”
Reiner also said that the department will continue to implement “rolling closures” on I-80 during major snow events – closing the interstate miles before the actual problem area, near communities that have restaurants and lodging, in order to spread out available resources for travelers who are stranded by a storm.
“So you go back to the population center that is not affected by the storm and close the road there, so that you can start stacking trucks and handling the interstate traffic, because there’s no room at the road where (the closure) is at,” he explained. “It’s a good thing for our trucks, it’s a good thing for the communities, just controlling traffic.”
But the methods the department is using to address the staff shortages are just short-term solutions, which Reiner said officials recognize.
“As a state we’re taking a look at our compensation plan, because our state’s compensation plan has really not been adjusted significantly for some time,” he said. “And the discussion we’re starting to have is, it’s probably time to change that, because while there’s a shortage across the board, our compensation plan really doesn’t compete in terms of attracting men and women to our service.”
And it’s not just snowplow drivers that the department is short on — Reiner said the Wyoming Highway Patrol is also currently understaffed.
“Safety on our roads is more than plows,” Reiner said. “It’s having somebody out there to man the gates, having somebody out there to respond to the accidents when they happen. And in our troopers we’re about 15% down.”
Reiner had high praise for the people who already make up the staff of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
“I thank the hard working men and women of WYDOT for what they’re doing for this state across the board,” he noted. “And we have lots of job openings, working for a fantastic organization. So if you want a great job, please come join us.”