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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Staffing shortages at DOT could mean closed roads, decreased service this winter

Washington State Department of Transportation plow crews work to clear Interstate 90 eastbound into Spokane during a flurry of snow on Dec. 30, 2020.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – This winter, cold, snowy weather is in the forecast. Now add long road closures.

Staff shortages have hit the Department of Transportation, which is down about 300 people. And that could mean roads won’t be plowed or maintained as quickly as motorists have come to expect..

“We have fewer staff this winter for several reasons, which means roadways will look different during storms,” department spokesperson Barbara LaBoe wrote in a blog post.

Going into last winter, the department was already short due to many workers nearing retirement, pandemic-related hiring freezes, and reduced revenue and furloughs, according to the post. Some of the positions were filled last winter, but only temporarily.

Going into this year, the department, like many other industries, faced a worker shortage specifically for diesel mechanics and those with commercial driver’s licenses.

Other states are facing similar problems finding staff. USA Today reported 11 states – Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming – are facing a shortage of snowplow drivers.

In Washington, the department also noted it lost workers due to the state’s coronavirus vaccine mandate that went into effect in October. It lost about 6% of its staff.

For winter operations, the department normally has about 1,500 people, but as of Oct. 19, it had only 1,200.

“We know it’s tough for (staff) to not be able to provide the same level of service this year,” LaBoe wrote. “But we simply can’t ask these hard-working colleagues to do more with less.”

The shortages come as Washington prepares for a cold and snowy winter , thanks to La Niña, a weather phenomenon that occurs when stronger-than-normal winds push warm ocean water toward Asia. It leads to cold water pushing to the surface on the West Coast, and heavy precipitation and cool temperatures.

The department also announced it would close the North Cascades Highway a few days early this year due to avalanche danger. Normally, it closes Nov. 15 but will instead it will close at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Because of the shortages, some roads and passes may be closed longer than normal after significant storms. Some roads may also be only plowed minimally and have snow and ice on the roadway for longer. Some lanes of the freeway may have snow and ice on them while crews focus on one or two lanes.

The staffing shortages could also mean there are slower responses to crashes, and it could take longer to clear major crashes from the roadway.

“We’re also prioritizing work and planning on shifting staff as needed to respond to storms in particular areas,” LaBoe wrote.

The department will prioritize clearing roads based on its plowing priority maps, meaning some secondary and recreation areas may get less attention.

In Eastern Washington, roads that are high on the department’s priority list are Interstate 90, U.S. Highway 395 and U.S. Highway 2.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.