Travel at your own risk: Ex-INDOT workers raise concerns

2014-01-25T23:00:00Z 2014-01-26T23:11:39Z Travel at your own risk: Ex-INDOT workers raise concernsBy Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
January 25, 2014 11:00 pm  • 

The Indiana Department of Transportation fired an employee for posting a video on the social media about Cline Avenue's potholed surface earlier this month.

But INDOT cannot so easily dismiss mounting frustration over its efforts to keep Interstate 80/94, Ridge Road, U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 in Northwest Indiana open and maintained during a winter of whiteouts, slide-offs, gyrating temperatures and glazed pavements.

Matt Deitchley, INDOT spokesman, said a full call-out of INDOT plows and resources was in force this weekend in the face of more snow drifting in high winds until roads were clear. He said each INDOT plow route takes two to three hours to complete, with de-icing agents assisting in melting between passes.

The National Weather Service offices in Indianapolis and Chicago, respectively, have recorded the second- and third-highest snowfall totals for a winter season on record through Jan. 21.

"INDOT yellow plow trucks have logged nearly 4.3 million miles and deployed 265,000 tons of granular salt during this record winter, through Jan. 18," he said. "In addition, INDOT had deployed nearly 2.5 million gallons of salt brine on Hoosier highways.

Raul Romero, 52, of Hammond, who counted 28 years with INDOT in Northwest Indiana before he was fired Jan. 16, accused his former bosses of depleting highway maintenance crews of their most experienced workers.

Romero and two other veteran road technicians, Terrance Bridgeman and Wilfredo Medina, said they no longer are behind the wheels of their road maintenance rigs because they were terminated after filing labor-related complaints, as well as other reasons.

Romero said the state is "replacing minorities with whites who can't drive a snow plow because they don't have a permit. They go from experienced, diverse workers to those with little or no training."

Romero said INDOT terminated him Jan. 16 for using his cellphone while driving a state vehicle, a violation of state policy. His managers found a video on his Facebook account he shot with his phone while driving Cline Avenue in his truck that he had posted the prior weekend.

"I did do that," Romero said. "I was warning people about the potholes."

Romero said he thought part of the problem was that there was no repaving of Cline last summer, which was compounded by this year's  unusually punishing winter. Romero said that is why he felt compelled to warn drivers, because INDOT officials had been reluctant to close Cline Avenue.

"The county wanted to shut down Cline. We had so many potholes we were overwhelmed," Romero said. "It took us from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to patch just one mile."

Assistant Lake County Police Chief Dan Murchek said he was on his phone with INDOT that same weekend demanding the department close Cline because of the broken pavement that disabled vehicles and posed possibly life-threatening conditions.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay said he saw Romero's Facebook video before he spoke out earlier this month about what he considered INDOT's negligence.

"But I didn't need a tipster," Repay said. 

"There comes a time when you look at a road and say this road is done, and you could have looked at Cline Avenue six months ago and said that.

"I brought this up to (State Rep. Ed Soliday, chairman of the House Transportation and Roads committee) well before the storms," Repay said.

Repay said Soliday denied that Northwest Indiana does not get its fair share of road money and attention.

Bridgeman, 48, of East Chicago, said he was fired Jan. 14, after working for 24 years as a snowplow driver and doing maintenance. He said he was told he was fired for not following directions.

"I covered Cline Avenue by myself -- 16 hours without a rest break," Bridgeman said.

Romero said Bridgeman spoke to a Chicago television reporter and was fired after doing so. 

"Salt breaks up the road. We would tar the holes and put in cold mix, not hot mix. It was like putting in aquarium gravel. They work you like a dog. People want to get to the mills and the boats," Bridgeman said.

Will Wingfield, an INDOT spokesman, said INDOT has invested $72 million since 2009 on I-80/94, Cline Avenue, Ridge Road, U.S. 30 and I-65 in a variety of capital projects where those roads travel through Lake and Porter counties, including contracted maintenance and reconstruction.

For the coming year, these roads will see $75.2 million worth of work.

Just this past year, INDOT invested $18 million to rebuild the Nine Span Bridge, $2.6 million to reconstruct portions of S.R. 152 in Hammond, $3 million to maintain the Borman Expressway west of S.R. 912 and $14 million to rebuild U.S. 12/20 in downtown Gary," Wingfield said.

Deitchley said INDOT’s maintenance budget is funded primarily through vehicle registration fees and an 18-cent tax charged for every gallon of gas. Indiana fuel taxes have not increased in more than a decade.

He said INDOT has spent about $450 million on road projects in Lake County alone since 2006, the second most spent on any one county in the state; adding the Cline Avenue resurfacing project this spring will cost $7.27 million, including bridge repair over Gary Avenue.

INDOT recounts efforts during brutal winter

Deitchley said during the past five years, the average cost of INDOT’s winter operations including overtime, fuel, and salt has been $33.8 million. With this winter a little more than half over, INDOT estimates it has invested more than $31 million in winter operations as of last week.

He said earlier this month, INDOT crews had been working extra hours patching potholes across Northwest Indiana as quickly as possible, but  constant freezing and thawing has resulted in one of the worst outbreaks of potholes in decades.

"Lake-effect storms and other weather patterns have brought snow to Northwest Indiana that nearby states and regions haven’t seen by comparison," Wingfield said, providing in a press release a list of INDOT efforts this winter, especially this January:

"For our highways, it has been more than just snow totals. Recent snow storms have combined with strong winds, causing blowing snow and low visibility. Sub-freezing temperatures have required salt and other anti-icing agents to work harder to chemically lower the temperature at which the accumulation melts. We will see more of that this weekend.

"With the winter a little more than half completed, INDOT’s Gary Subdistrict, has already deployed more salt than they would use in a typical winter (five-year average) and 1.5 times the amount of salt brine pre-treatment.

"In addition, INDOT’s Northwest Indiana district based in LaPorte, has deployed 2,845 tons of sand and winter abrasives and 15,780 gallons of other de-icers, such as calcium chloride and Beet Heet. Virtually all of which this been used since Jan. 1 during periods of low and sub-zero temperatures.

"During the 'Polar Vortex' storm beginning Jan. 6, INDOT relocated 25 plow trucks with drivers from southeast to northeast Indiana and lodged the drivers in area hotels.

"The Jan. 5-7 closures of I-65 and I-94 were a joint decision between INDOT and Indiana State Police due to the storm impacting first response capabilities and response times, posing safety concerns for stopped motorists amid blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures. INDOT and ISP set the closure limits where truck stops, hotels and restaurants were available to serve motorists. During the closures, INDOT continued to plow and treat the closed highways so they could reopen as soon as possible.

"Prior to (Thursday's) multivehicle fatal crash on I-94, INDOT had a full call-out of yellow plow trucks and had spread approximately 30 tons of salt on I-94 in the area. INDOT had plowed and treated the eastbound lanes of I-94 about 20 minutes before the LaPorte County crash occurred."

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