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Snow plow contractors balk at upgrading gear

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / September 15, 2010

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State transportation officials, saying they are intent on making removal of snow and ice more efficient, are asking hundreds of private plow drivers who work as state contractors to upgrade their trucks to clear snow more effectively and reduce the amount of salt they spread on roadways.

But drivers say they cannot afford the costly upgrades and don’t trust the state’s promise to make up for the cost by paying them higher hourly wages.

The state is asking plow drivers to invest in “side-wing plows’’ — secondary, angled plows that help clear more snow. Drivers of salt-spreader trucks are being asked to purchase electronic “ground speed control’’ devices that monitor the amount of salt spread, dispense it more slowly when a truck moves at a slower speed, and compile data about the work completed. Combined, that equipment can cost more than $20,000 per vehicle, said Matthew A. Frazier, the president of the Massachusetts Snow and Ice Contractors Association and owner of M.A. Frazier, a Cape Cod firm.

The state’s hourly incentives would repay the investment over about 600 hours of work. The state says drivers would work that amount over two average winters. Frazier said it would probably take much longer.

Luisa Paiewonsky, the state’s highway administrator, said yesterday that she considers the contract and incentive program to be favorable for plow drivers, while saving money for state taxpayers.

“We hear the concerns of the business owners,’’ she said. “We know them very well; we’ve worked side by side with them for many years, and we are responding to their concerns. But we’ll continue to look for practices that save money, and that means we will be changing our operations over time.’’

Paiewonsky said she has a responsibility not just to the plow drivers but to taxpayers. As highway administrator for the new Department of Transportation, she presides over more than 10,000 miles of lanes on highways and state routes that were previously under the auspices of the Massachusetts Highway Department, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Massachusetts Port Authority, each of which had its own snow-clearing methods and which relied on a mix of contractors and state employees.

“With the creation of MassDOT, we got an opportunity to relook at the whole snow and ice system . . . to identify some of the best practices from all of the organizations to really revamp our approach to snowstorms,’’ Paiewonsky said.

Plow, spreader, and combination drivers earn anywhere from about $75 to $175 an hour for state work, depending on the type and size of their equipment. That might sound like a lot, Frazier said, but the sum is quickly eaten by the cost of insurance, fuel, and repairs on heavy vehicles that can take a beating in a severe storm, he said.

“It’s a very expensive business to be in, and most every snow and ice contractor, they’re not in [the business] to get rich,’’ he said. “It’s winter work, it’s cash flow.’’

State Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, last week submitted a letter to the Transportation Department signed by a group of about 30 lawmakers asking the department to meet with the contractors association and work toward a resolution.

“I certainly applaud Transportation for trying to do what they can to save the taxpayer money, but we have to do it in a way to make sure that we can still have these contractors,’’ Pacheco said. “In another week we’ll enter the autumn season, and before you know it, the snow will be flying potentially, and we don’t want to be in the situation’’ with inadequate storm coverage.

While officials call the proposed equipment upgrades a voluntary “incentive program,’’ the drivers — many of whom believe they have been treated poorly by the state in the past — worry it is instead a requirement. They fear that those who do not participate could lose their status on the call list for storms; they also worry that the cost of the upgrades would strain businesses that operate on the margins.

The state and the contractors rely on each other but have had a bumpy relationship. The state needs roughly 2,000 contractors and 4,000 pieces of private equipment to supplement its limited snow-clearing fleet each winter. The contractors, mostly landscapers and other warm-weather laborers, need the work for off-season income.

Tensions between the state and the contractors have erupted in the past over the timeliness of the state’s payments and over a failed initiative during the administration of former governor Mitt Romney to track plow drivers by issuing them GPS-enabled cellphones. The program was plagued by software glitches and was ultimately abandoned after the state invested several million dollars in phones, software, and labor in an effort to catch contractors who were not doing work.

The contractors and state officials are scheduled to meet today in an attempt to reach an accord. The state wants drivers to sign contracts by Friday. The Contractors Association, which formed in response to the 2003 GPS initiative and which now negotiates on behalf of the individually employed drivers who work for the state, voted unanimously Sept. 1 to reject a one-year contract proposal, over the terms and what the association considered a short time frame to digest and approve the deal.

“We’re not threatening not to work,’’ said Bob Lalicata, who owns an Arlington landscape supply business and works in the winter as a state plow driver. “We just want a fair contract, and they’re not being fair.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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