OUR OPINION: Prepare for challenging winter

The Missouri Department of Transportation shared a startling fact last week that should cause us to shudder.

MoDOT has more trucks than drivers this winter.

The imbalance isn't because MoDOT went out on a buying spree for snowplows; the issue is they simply haven't been able to find enough drivers with commercial drivers licenses to perform the vital job of clearing roads when snow and ice inevitably return to the state.

MoDOT maintenance crews performed their annual statewide winter weather drill Thursday. The typical 3,400-person team of plow operators is down by 900 employees this year.

"We're almost a third less than what we need to be able to fill every truck we have over a 24-hour period," Central District Engineer Machelle Watkins said. "So we don't have enough people to operate all the trucks we've got."

With 900 maintenance employees gone, Watkins said it will have a "significant impact" on the state's ability to clear roads and bridges.

As drivers, one way we may feel the impact is when a widespread winter storm lasts more than 12 hours. Simply put, MoDOT doesn't have enough employees to fill all of its trucks for a second shift.

A similar condition existed last year, but MoDOT was only down a few hundred drivers statewide.

So, what's the primary cause of the driver shortage? Salaries.

MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna has often said the state's uncompetitive salaries are the main driver of employee turnover.

High turnover rates have plagued MoDOT for the past few years. This year has been particularly bad.

Watkins said: "Over the last five years we've averaged a turnover rate of about 600 employees a year and this year we're on track to somewhere around 800 employees, 800 to 900."

The real problem, MoDOT officials acknowledge, is that there are a lot of other opportunities out there for CDL operators. So attracting and retaining drivers is terribly difficult. And when you can't sufficiently retain drivers, you lose a lot of valuable experience.

And that's why MoDOT focused so heavily Thursday on its winter weather drill, which was designed to get drivers accustomed to their routes.

All available crews statewide participated in the winter storm simulation. In addition to training drivers on routes and calibrating equipment, MoDOT activated its emergency operations center and tested communication systems throughout the day.

Thursday's event was designed to help MoDOT to prepare and plan for winter.

We should be taking the same approach as drivers and businesses: We must prepare for a challenging winter.

That may include planning around the storms by picking a location where you can stay for the duration of a storm and the extended time it will take crews to clear the roadways.

It may be prudent to dust off those remote work and school plans we had to use during the pandemic.

And we should keep an eye on the skies and the Traveler Information Map that MoDOT updates online to keep Missourians advised of road conditions.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

-- News Tribune