Mass. Considering Traffic Flaggers Instead of Police at Construction Sites

By | August 14, 2008

Civilian flaggers dressed in orange safety vests could replace police officers at some roadside construction projects as early as October under regulations set to be unveiled by the Patrick administration Wednesday.

Police unions have fiercely defended the paid details, but Gov. Deval Patrick has said allowing civilians to direct traffic at construction sites could save millions in taxpayer dollars.

The draft regulations would create a three-tiered system of ranking roads, a person who has seen the plan told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not been made public.

Roads with speed limits below 45 miles per hour would be most likely to have civilians flag bearers assigned to them. Roads with speeds of 45 or more, but with little traffic, would come next.

Roads with speeds of 45 or more and heavier traffic would be the least likely to see police details replaced by civilian flag bearers.

The decision where and when to use civilians would be made on a case-by-case basis based on standards included in the draft regulations, the person said.

Legislation approved by the House and Senate limited the use of civilian flag bearers to state projects to avoid conflicts with local laws or collective bargaining agreements that cities and towns may have worked out with police unions.

The draft regulations are subject to a public hearing process.

The paid details are considered a cherished perk by police unions. Police officers can earn up to $40 an hour for detail work, significantly adding to their income, while states using civilians can pay half that.

Union officials say the details are more than just a way for officers to boost their pay.

They say that police are better equipped and trained to respond more quickly to emergencies. They also point out that police officers have the authority to stop traffic, close lanes, and issue citations — all of which make for safer construction sites.

They even have the authority to shut down a site if there are safety problems, union officials said.

James Machado, president of the Massachusetts Police Association, which represents 22,000 officers, said he was disappointed by the draft regulations.

“We feel it is a reneg on the governor’s promise,” Machado said. “He came into office pledging to put 1,000 police on the street. This is going to take 1,000 police off the street. We think that public safety will suffer in the long run.”

Machado also said there won’t be any significant savings. He said the prevailing wage for flagmen in Massachusetts is nearly as much as the wage paid police details.

Supporters of the plan say that prevailing wage will fall as more civilians are trained to direct traffic.

The call for the new regulations was included a transportation bond bill signed by Patrick in April. The law required the secretaries of transportation and public safety to draft the regulations within 90 days.

The administration missed the 90-day deadline, but Patrick said last week that he wanted to make sure they got the regulations right the first time.

In March, Patrick teamed with Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi to roll out the plan. Murray said the plan could save $100 million over 20 years. It would bring Massachusetts in line with the rest of the country, backers said.

There is no state law mandating that police officers direct traffic at road construction sites, but the practice has become commonplace. Some communities have labor contracts requiring that police staff construction sites.

Backers of the plan say authorizing the use of civilian flagmen on state-controlled projects would encourage local and cities and towns to adopt similar measures — especially when they see the savings.

Sen. Steve Baddour, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said some police details will still be needed, but the change will give Massachusetts the flexibility it needs to use civilians where appropriate.

“The governor was clearly elected on a mandate for change and this is real change. This is the type of reform that the public have been clamoring for,” Baddour said Tuesday. “If 49 other states can strike a balance between public safety and saving money, we can too.”

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