Ex-plow driver challenges CDOT working conditions
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Poorly maintained equipment and a shortage of trained plow drivers may be contributing to unsafe travel conditions and I-70 congestion, according to a former Colorado Department of Transportation snowplow operator.
Copper Mountain resident Kim Fenske, who was fired by CDOT last year, claims his termination was arbitrary and related to his whistleblower complaints about unsafe equipment and conditions during the time he worked on the busy and dangerous stretch of interstate between Silverthorne and Vail.
Fenske has appealed his termination to the state personnel board. An administrative law judge (outside the state’s judicial system) decided late last month that CDOT must respond to Fenske’s whistleblower allegations, setting an April 2 deadline.
“CDOT has to reply to my allegations that I was fired because I reported unsafe conditions,” said Fenske, who is now driving for the Summit Stage.
CDOT Region 1 director Jeff Kullman said he couldn’t directly address the issue of Fenske’s termination and subsequent appeal process since it’s a personnel matter.
Kullman said Fenske was a probationary employee when he was fired. Employees with that status are generally not granted hearings, he explained.
But Kullman acknowledged that his agency does face maintenance and personnel challenges. The agency’s equipment budget was withheld for an entire year recently, requiring the agency to stretch the useful life of its equipment. That exacerbated the maintenance challenges, Kullman said.
“It’s required us to keep our equipment operating at 150 percent of its useful life,’ Kullman said. At the same time, CDOT does recognize the safety issues in the I-70 corridors, as well as the economic importance of keeping the route open, he said. At least when it comes to personnel, the mountain region gets an adequate share of resources, especially as compared to the plains in the eastern part of the state, he said.
“I will tell you we had an extraordinary number of vacancies in Summit and Eagle counties,” Kullman said, addressing Fenske’s concerns about turnover. Several policy changes were made to improve retention, including a housing allowance for personnel based in high-cost resort areas, as well bonus pay based on completion of a one-year training period.
Those changes have helped reduce what Kullman characterized as “unreasonable” turnover that went as high as 100 percent annually, down to a more manageable 10 to 15 percent turnover in Summit County, he said.
“We’re still having some of the same issues on the Vail Pass patrol. We’re still looking at that,” Kullman said.
According to a Jan. 29, 2007, memo from Fenske to CDOT officials, the single-axle plow trucks are underpowered and not equipped for the task of clearing snow from the steep grades on Vail Pass, especially the west side. Brake failures on those vehicles have resulted in several accidents and many more near misses, Fenske said.
“Why don’t they put the best equipment possible on this route?” Fenske asked. “They’re running single-axle trucks that are more than a decade old.”
The lack of drivers, combined with inefficient equipment, means CDOT is not able to clear the highway, off-ramps and merging lanes nearly as fast as it should, resulting in dangerous back-ups, he said.
In the same memo, Fenske alleges that other drivers have complained of suffering from sleep deprivation and about being assigned to drive 12-hour shifts on Vail Pass immediately after completing shifts in their home areas.
Kullman said all maintenance issues are addressed according to standard CDOT procedures.
“Nobody is ever asked to operate a piece of equipment that is not deemed safe,” Kullman said. “We try to keep the equipment up the best we can, but a winter of 22-hour days of plowing takes its toll,” he said. “I’m not going tell with a fleet that size that there aren’t any maintenance challenges.”
Kullman said drivers are working many 12-hour shifts, but denied Fenske’s charge that Front Range workers are “drafted’ and required to work plow shifts in the mountain corridor immediately after completing their regular duties.