Local government

Budget cuts, employee shortage will impact winter snowplow rotation for some local state highways

ONTARIO – Drivers in Malheur County could see fewer state Transportation Department snowplows on roads with lower traffic volumes this winter as the state agency grapples with budget cuts and an inability to fill vacant positions.
Snowplow crews will focus on such main roadways as Interstate 84, Oregon Highway 201, U.S. Highway 20 and U.S. Highway 26 during a large storm, said Paul Woodruff, manager of the agency’s District 14, which includes Harney, Grant and Malheur counties.
“There will be some highways with lower volumes where folks will see a significant change,” said Woodruff.
The service cutbacks are triggered by an effort by the Transportation Department to trim its budget.
“To balance our budget, we are scaling back maintenance and services around the state,” said Vicki Moles, community affairs specialist for the Transportation Department.
The budget crunch is the result of lower gas tax revenues because vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient or drivers are switching to electric cars.
The 2023-2025 budget for the Transportation Department is $6.1 billion, said Moles.
“However, we are cutting spending to avoid running a deficit. In other words, we have to spend less than the amount approved by the legislature,” said Moles.
Those cutbacks mean fewer crews on the roads. That’s because individual districts – such as District 14 – must slash overtime and leave some jobs vacant. At the same, some positions remain empty because the state agency faces the same problem many businesses in America face – lack of qualified individuals who want to work.
“We are having struggles hiring people. A lot of our wintertime activities are done with overtime. With our reduced budget we have to cut our overtime,” said Woodruff.
Overtime pay, he said, is often utilized during a major storm when there is a high demand for plow crews and main transportation arteries are impacted.
“Our strategy is to focus our limited budget on storms. We will try to reserve overtime budgets to use then,” he said.
That means it “may take longer for us to clean up after a storm and you may not see much activity on bluebird (clear) days,” he said.

“We have to reduce enough of our labor budget, along with everything else, like material and equipment. So, its two things, budget cuts and troubling hiring people,” said Woodruff.
Woodruff said his plan now for the local area will not be much different than in years past.
The focus will still be to run plows regularly on Interstate 84, Oregon Highway 201, U.S. Highway 20 and U.S. Highway 26.
The problem he faces this year, because of the budget tightening, vacant slots and difficulty hiring new employees, is Woodruff doesn’t have a very deep bench.
“Last year if we had a person or two call in sick, we had a couple people to fill that hole. This year if someone calls in sick, we don’t have a backup. It will still get plowed, but plowed fewer times,” he said.
U.S. Highway 95, that slashes through southern Malheur County, is one of the low volume roadways that will see significant change between Jordan Valley and Basque Junction this winter, said Woodruff.
That’s because, he said, there are only 10 Transportation Department employees stretched between Jordan Valley and Basque Junction.
Woodruff said he is down 30% on his workforce in southern Malheur County.
“We’ve had some recruiting issues. They are low enough (in staffing) that we won’t even schedule a night shift,” he said.
Graham Boulevard that arcs off from U.S. Highway 20 west of Vale is another lower volume road that will be impacted, said Woodruff. He said Graham Boulevard “probably won’t see a plow until after the storm.”
That’s a change, he said, from last year when a plow was designated for that roadway at least once during the day.
“At times that will look like a big impact to folks,” said Woodruff.
Labor and equipment costs run about $1,100 per shift for four plows, said Woodruff.
“That doesn’t include material like sand, salt and magnesium chloride,” he said.
Shifts vary between eight and ten hours, he said, depending on crew size. Some crews – such as the one that operates out of Ontario – contain 14 people. Crews in places like Juntura and Jordan Valley have five.
Woodruff said there is the potential to delegate about 70 people across the district to get behind the wheel of a snowplow.
“Trying to do that with a day and night shift, it gets down pretty thin when you spread it over three counties,” he said.
Woodruff said during a severe storm the Transportation Department, tries to avoid using all of its resources at once.
“It is not like we are going to reduce snowplowing on this highway and not that one,” he said.
Woodruff said it is “very rare” for the Transportation Department to close down a highway.
“Our mission is to keep highways open,” he said.
However, he said, sometimes factors other than weather force a highway to close.
“Usually its crashes,” he said.
Moles said crews will still be on the road, but “we will not be able to provide the service Oregonians have to come to expect.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell online at pat@ malheurenterprise.com.

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