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Road crew staffing spotlighted in Kansas budget debate



In this photo from January 31, Jacob Woerner, a Kansas Department of Transportation equipment operator and maintenance worker, repairs a highway delineator on Interstate 70 west of Topeka, Kansas. Delineators mark the side of a highway for motorists at night and during storms so that they don’t go off a road’s shoulder, and Woerner says, “There’s quite a bit of work that we do that people don’t notice.” (Associated Press: JOHN HANNA)

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas has trouble keeping road equipment operators from leaving for other, better-paying jobs — so much so that supervisors worry about being able to cobble together crews to clear snow after blizzards and to fill potholes quickly.

For Department of Transportation leaders, the 100 percent annual turnover rate among entry-level equipment operators signals a problem that requires an immediate solution. For new Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, the staffing woes are a prime example of the worse-than-expected problems she says she found as she was preparing to take office last month.

Like many funding questions, it’s a Rorschach test, viewed as more or less important based on an official’s overall philosophy of government.

Kelly says it’s part of an overarching message that state government might take years to recover from damage caused by past Republican tax-cutting policies. But some Republican legislators are skeptical that KDOT faces a crisis and think Kelly is overstating problems to push the GOP-controlled Legislature into higher spending.

“We probably have a lot of work to do, but is it in as bad a shape as she’s alleging? No,” Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a conservative Galena Republican.

The conflicting agendas leave KDOT workers and supervisors with the daily chore of filling out crews to fix potholes, repair or replace signs, pick up trash and clear highways. KDOT says it needs almost 1,200 operators to drive trucks; 640 of the jobs are filled. In Topeka, supervisor Mike Daniel is supposed to have 12 workers and has seven, with three still training to operate equipment.

“It’s just a constant trying to catch up,” said Daniel, who has worked for KDOT for 36 years. “It has gotten progressively worse, probably, in the past five to eight years.”

Kansas has had a national reputation for good highways because of its commitment to big, multi-year transportation programs since the late 1980s.

The libertarian Reason Foundation has consistently rated the Kansas system as one of the nation’s best — ranking it 2nd in 2018. Republicans have cited its reports to counter criticism that GOP officials have allowed the state’s roads fall into disrepair.

Other ratings are not as generous. The American Society of Civil Engineers said in a report last year that Kansas had consistently kept 80 percent of its roads in good condition for two decades but still gave its highway system a C-minus grade, partly over funding concerns. There’s bipartisan agreement that funding for highway programs has been shorted too much over the past decade.

The state started a 10-year transportation program in 2010 meant to tackle safety issues and modernize bottlenecked stretches. But the program became “the Bank of KDOT,” with nearly $2.5 billion diverted to other parts of state government to close budget shortfalls, almost two-thirds of the amount in the last four years.

Legislators of all political philosophies have decried the continued diversion of transportation funds, and Kelly said while running for governor last year that the state had to stop the practice.

But to reach her top goals of boosting spending on public schools and expanding state Medicaid health coverage for the needy, she’s not proposing to end the siphoning off of highway funds immediately. Her proposed spending blueprint for the next fiscal year still diverts $369 million, and her stated goal is end the practice by 2023.

Kelly raised KDOT’s staffing as an issue even before taking office. Pay is a big issue. Other parts of state government have similar concerns: Prisons have trouble keeping uniformed officers even after special efforts to boost salaries, and wages are a long-standing sore point in the court system.

KDOT promises untrained equipment operators that they’ll get commercial driver’s licenses within two months, but it starts them in metro areas at $13.33 an hour. After three years, a senior equipment operator would earn a little more than $14 an hour.

The city of Topeka just bumped its starting pay for street maintenance workers by nearly $2 an hour, to $15. Daniel said area contractors will pay laborers — who don’t need a commercial driver’s license — from $15 to $18 an hour.

“I’m really worried about churning people like we’re churning them,” said interim Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz. “We currently have stuff cobbled together, and that’s not where we want to be.”

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a conservative Salina Republican who was chairman of a House budget committee on transportation funding for four years, questioned whether the department needs as many equipment operators as it says.

“I drive Kansas interstates frequently, and I know that they are doing an excellent job, (a) keeping the ditches mowed and (b) keeping our roads clear and safe,” said Claeys.

Story by John Hanna, Associated Press Political Writer


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The Nation

Diesel heads up 4 cents a gallon to $3.006



Diesel prices jumped 4 cents a gallon to ring up Tuesday at $3.006. (The Trucker file photo)

For the past several months, including the end of 2018, all the “experts” said oil (and consequently diesel) was going nowhere but up. It had to, they reasoned, after prices had almost literally scraped the bottom of the barrel.

Then oil and diesel both went down for weeks. After that it stayed the same.

Now diesel prices are finally up — 4 cents a gallon — to $3.006 a gallon Tuesday from $2.966 a gallon last week.

Normally, diesel prices would have been announced Monday, but since it was President’s Day, diesel prices were released Tuesday.

And it may be a testament to how long prices had been going down or stayed flat that none of the U.S. Information Administration’s 10 reporting regions were clocking $4-a-gallon diesel, not even California, where diesel was ringing up at $3.739.

Also, four regions were still below $3 a gallon as of Tuesday.

And although 4 cents a gallon for the on-highway national average was a significant jump from the week before, the Lower Atlantic and Midwest regions each jumped 5.5 cents a gallon. Diesel in the Lower Atlantic sector went from $2.872 last week to $2.927 Tuesday while in the Midwest, diesel prices went from $2.849 last week to $2.904 today.

The Gulf Coast had the lowest prices at $2.809 a gallon, up 3.3 cents from the week prior.

Is this the start of an upward trend? It’s hard to know what oil prices will do in a global economy that is teetering since what seems like a bandwagon jump out of the European Union.

Meanwhile, oil was trading up:

U.S. crude added 48 cents to $56.07 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange after gaining $1.19 on Monday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 16 cents to $66.34 per barrel, The Associated Press reported.

For diesel prices by sector, click here.

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The Nation

Ohio governor to reveal gas tax hike plan Thursday



Ohio's tp Transportation Department executive says the state is facing an "impending crisis" unless more road funding is provided. (The Trucker file photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine says he’ll announce Thursday his proposed recommendation for increasing the state’s gas tax to deal with a chronic shortfall in spending on road construction.

DeWine, a Republican, says there are no other solutions outside a gas tax increase, while warning that any increase simply keeps Ohio from falling behind.

He wouldn’t provide details or say what the proposed increase will be. He spoke at an annual forum sponsored by The Associated Press.

DeWine says the increase is “just to keep us where we are today.”

The head of the Ohio Department of Transportation director said earlier this month that Ohio’s road maintenance and infrastructure are facing an “impending crisis” unless more funding is provided.

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The Nation

OOIDA Foundation issues information it says debunks driver shortage ‘myth’



Most carriers with high turnover do so by design, says OOIDA President Todd Spencer. “They could deal with driver turnover by offering better wages and benefits and improved working conditions,” he said.

GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. — The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s research foundation published two new documents it says debunks the driver shortage “myth.”

A fact sheet explains how the industry isn’t afflicted with a shortage of drivers, but is actually plagued with overcapacity and driver retention, the foundation reported.

A second, accompanying document talks about how wages have decreased for truck drivers at large carriers and many have moved toward smaller fleets.

Last year, the association also created a short video that explains why there is high turnover as opposed to a shortage.

“We are concerned about the perpetuation of a myth of driver shortage,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA President. “This misinformation is used to push agendas that are harmful to the industry and highway safety.”

To address the supposed driver “shortage,” some organizations have suggested that the age requirement to obtain a commercial driver’s license should be lowered from 21 to 18.

“If safety is the top priority when considering a change to a regulation, when it comes to age, the number should be raised, not lowered.” Spencer said.

OOIDA also contends that any issue with retention could be mitigated with other solutions that would be safer for all highway users.

For example, compensation has been shown to be tied directly to highway safety, as revealed in studies that suggest there is a strong correlation between driver pay and highway safety, Spencer said.

“Most carriers with high turnover do so by design,” he said. “They could deal with driver turnover by offering better wages and benefits and improved working conditions. But putting younger drivers behind the wheel of a truck isn’t the solution because it does nothing to address the underlying issues that push drivers out of the industry. It merely exacerbates the churn.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is the largest national trade association representing the interests of small-business trucking professionals and professional truck drivers. The association currently has more than 160,000 members nationwide. OOIDA was established in 1973 and is headquartered in the greater Kansas City, Missouri, area.




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