Mass. to Begin Ramping Up Civilian Flagger Program After Slow Start

Fri March 13, 2009 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) Gov. Deval Patrick’s push to use civilian flaggers instead of police to direct traffic near some road construction projects is off to a slow start.

But state officials said they expect the program, which is intended to save millions in taxpayers dollars by reducing police overtime, to pick up significantly this year.

During last year’s construction season, the state used flaggers on 29 projects — most of them small maintenance jobs — and saved approximately $12,500, according to the state highway department. Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky described last year’s projects as a test of the new program and said the state improved its flagger training program this winter.

“We had a pilot test in the fall. It was designed to test the performance of our employees who had never flagged before,’’ she said. “We were very pleased with the results.’’

Paiewonsky said she expects the savings to increase this year as the state uses more flaggers on larger construction projects. About 60 percent of new MassHighway construction projects have been deemed eligible for civilian flaggers.

MassHighway already has identified 45 construction projects on which civilian flaggers will be used. The highway department says it’s also increasing the number of civilians trained as flaggers.

All 125 flaggers trained last year were MassHighway employees. Paiewonsky said she expects several hundred civilians will ultimately be trained as flaggers — most of them contractors.

The civilian flagger program sets up a three-tiered system for classifying work sites. Projects on roads with speed limits below 45 mph are most likely to have civilian flaggers assigned to them.

The new policy came under intense criticism from police unions, who had fought for years to maintain the prized perk. They argued that having police directing traffic at construction sites increases public safety, pointing out that civilian flaggers aren’t authorized to pull over drivers or make arrests.

In October, dozens of police officers disrupted the work of a road maintenance crew, heckling civilian flaggers at a construction site in Woburn on the first day that the policy took effect. The protest grew so disruptive that the local police were called in to restore order.

Others have praised the idea, saying the change is an important reform that will save the state millions of dollars.

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