Bring on the flagmen

In the last few days, I've had the pleasure of driving down High Street in South Acton several times. What is normally a pleasant little drive was a mini-nightmare of "Waiting for Godot" as trucks scooped dirt into a dumptruck while a line of cars idled for five or more minutes. It appears that the Acton Water District is digging up the road to install a new water main line, related to the new water treatment plant that is being built. Evidently this has been going on sporadically for a year.

It is annoying to wait in a line when you can't tell when you will be allowed to go. Each visit seemed like eternity. Several cars routinely jumped out of line to turn around (see attached photos). But eventually, the officer allowed the cars in line to go.

When I first drove through this quagmire on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, I noticed that the road was blocked off on the westbound side (going up to Route 27) and only traffic heading East (down to Route 62) was allowed to pass. Normally during road construction, both lanes are open, even if they have to take turns.

So I wasn't surprised at first to see a second police officer at the detour sign at the end of the construction zone, until I drove further east and saw a second detour sign at Valley Road...and then the third and final one at Parker Street.

Why would a second officer need to be standing by the detour sign next to the construction zone when there was obviously no traffic coming that way, except for maybe a local resident or two? The road construction had turned this into a one-way road and you really only needed one policeman to stop and start traffic going Eastbound when the way was clear. And if there was to be a second policeman, shouldn't he be at the first detour sign at Parker Street, where all the traffic had to turn off the road, and not at the third sign by which time there was no further traffic going West?

The next day I again drove down High Street, waited another five minutes, and drove by the road construction site with three police officers on duty. That seemed strange...but I figured maybe there was a change of shift going on.

Today, I drove through the construction twice (waiting five minutes each time) and both times there were four officers. Four! How many officers are needed to direct traffic on a one-way road?

So I contacted Acton's police chief, Frank Widmayer, to learn more about the construction and Acton's policy on police details.

"Most of your [construction] questions should be directed to the Water Department," he said.

About the details, he said, "We determine the number of officers based on the request of the contractor and the safety of the traffic."

So then I contacted Chris Allen, the District Manager of the Acton Water District.

"Police details are coordinated by the contractor with the Acton PD [Police Dept] based on whatever they deem are safe traffic conditions for the areas where work is occurring."

Hmm. Sounds to me like we had at least two officers, and probably three officers, too many. But since taxpayers are footing the bill, no one involved really seems to care. Business as usual in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Do you wonder how much officers earn on these details?

Said Chris Allen, "Once police are on site, it is a 4-hour minimum, once they exceed 4-hours, it triggers to 8-hours. Beyond that, anything over 8 hours is time worked at time + ½. Hourly rate per detail officer is about $45/hour, on the average."

I asked about flagmen and got two different responses.

Frank Widmayer: "If I allowed the contractor to use flagmen the road would never be open to traffic as they would just stop it all day every day. High Street is a major shortcut and has high traffic volume. Closing it is not an option."

Seems like if the road were closed you wouldn't need any flagmen, just a few big orange signs and sawhorses.

I seem to recall a while ago, perhaps last year or before, that High Street was closed and traffic was being routed down Conant Street and then back past the sewer treatment plant onto High Street. I bet this would be quicker for most drivers than having to wait five minutes each time traffic was stopped. And it would definitely be quicker for those drivers who opted to turn around and go another way anyway.

Chris Allen: "The use of flagmen is a local jurisdiction decision. Acton PD [Police Dept] does not allow this, but, hopefully, will in the future. They’ve had some challenges filling a few details for this project, and, certainly in the future, the selective use of flagmen may alleviate some of that burden."

So how much do these details cost?

Chris Allen: "The budget for police details is $100k. [Pause for reader gasp.] That is for work on the approximate 2.5 mile raw water transmission line from School Street across Parker Street into Assabet Crossing to the Assabet well site behind Powdermill Plaza, and the distribution system upgrades for the project on High Street, to which you are referring."

It doesn't sound like Acton taxpayers have to pay for this directly. "The project is being funded through the Massachusetts State Revolving Fund via the Water Pollution Abatement Trust," said Chris Allen.

But as my readers know, all government spending comes from taxpayers, one way or the other.

Well, $100k here, $100k there. Nothing another sales tax or property tax increase can't cover, right?

Photo One: Sign needs to be pluralized.

Photo Two: Three cars turning around in front of me.

Photo Three: The first detour sign heading Westbound at Parker Street.

Photo Four: A view of the road construction on High Street during my wait.

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Acton residents will be paying for the flagmen after all

According to a reader, the Acton Water District is borrowing the money for this treatment plant and related improvements at around 2% interest rate. So the project is actually being funded by future Acton Water District Ratepayers, who are all the residents of Acton.

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.


Our police chief is probably correct about the use of flagmen in Massachusetts, but only because training for such work and observation of safety rules in general is so abysmal here. I worked for a gas company out west on a street crew and, believe me, we did hours of training for every conceivable permutation. Our rate was whatever wage the job paid, no built in escalaors for standing in the 100 degree heat with all our safety equipment on or anything like that. Not only is the use of public employees to routinely flag traffic a waste of money, I doubt that the police even know how to cone off a construction site properly. But beyond that, they are generally UNSAFE when working a traffic detail. How many times have you seen an officer casually conversing with equipment operators instead of watching the traffic? Ever see them stand within the swing radius of a backhoe or other digging machine? They do it all the time and it is one of the most basic construction safety rules that you should not stand in that position. Even more obtuse is the lack of safety awareness of the construction personnel. At the gas company, if we were cutting a street and did not have a hard hat and safety glasses on, we would be terminated. Go past any construction site in Massachusetts where the street is being cut with a jackhammer and you will almost never see the worker wearing safety glasses. I have always been amazed by the lack of a sense of self-preservation that these workers display. Ultimately, just like the outrageous price of flagging, we pay for the general lack of safety at these sites.

Dave Holland