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When you drive by a construction site in Massachusetts, you probably notice a police officer directing traffic. That's despite Massachusetts becoming the last state in the nation, in 2008, to allow civilian flaggers instead of police at construction sites. For years critics said police details were unnecessarily costly and did little, except boost officers' salaries.
It's not clear how much has changed in three years. The state said it is using more private flaggers and has saved about $8 million a year in traffic control costs. But a new survey by The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) finds that only a handful of communities actually use the flaggers.
"The law has worked, but given the enormous publicity and political pushback from the police and unions, probably the citizens thought we were biting off much more than we actually did."Michael Widmer, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation website calls the use of road flaggers one of its most "visible" reform initiatives, yet you don't often see many civilian flaggers on the road. One of the few places where NECIR found private flaggers was on Route 115 South in Norfolk. When we visited, there were two flaggers on either end of this construction area, dressed in neon green, holding tall signs and directing traffic through one open lane of a two-lane state roadway. The local union said this was the only time its flaggers have been hired in the three years since the law passed.
Much of the problem, said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, is that the law favors using police details.
"There is a major investment in preserving police flaggers," Widmer said. "Obviously for them in compensation, and at the municipal level police are very much part of a governing structure, so mayors and selectmen don't want to offend the police chief and police officers. So this is a tangled web here that is difficult to untangle and understand."
The law itself is complicated. For example, it requires that police details be used on roads where the speed limit is above 45 mph. The law also allows communities to decide whether to use police officers for municipal projects — and almost all of them do. And most police union contracts require police details on all local road jobs.
So civilian flaggers essentially are used only for state projects. What that means is that flaggers must be paid a set, or "prevailing," wage for working on a public works project. Police unions maintain that the prevailing wage makes the private flaggers more expensive than police details.
But Widmer said different projects and different union contracts make it tough to calculate any actual savings.
"It's exceedingly difficult to get a handle on this and it doesn't seem to be in anyone's interest to help shed light on it," Widmer said.
NECIR found that the average hourly wage for a civilian flagger is about $32, compared with the $37 an hour average wage for a detail officer. Either way, that would be a roughly $70,000 annual salary for a full-time flagger.
"We're lucky if we can get that much to pay Ph.D.s at the university," said economics professor David Tuerck, president of The Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank at Suffolk University. He said the whole law should be changed to pay flaggers the same way we pay school crossing guards.
"I don't want to be elitist, but I would argue that it takes more training to get a Ph.D. in mathematics, let's say, than it does to know which sign to hold up, whether you want the traffic to go or you want the traffic to stop," Tuerck said.
The state said the flagger law has saved $23 million over three years in traffic control costs — much of it because it no longer has to pay the minimum hours and minimum staffing levels that many police union contracts require. But many lawmakers and the state auditor say those savings are exaggerated.
Widmer said the law has saved money, just not as much as people expected.
"The law has worked, but given the enormous publicity and political pushback from the police and unions, probably the citizens thought we were biting off much more than we actually did," Widmer said.
Some civilian flagging companies also expected more from the law. NECIR spoke with three flagging companies who said they have placed a total of two flaggers on Massachusetts roads since the law passed. That's a stark contrast to the state Transportation Department claim that the use of civilian flaggers is rising and they now work on more than 48 percent of highway projects.
This program aired on September 26, 2011.
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