Are Civilian Flag Wavers Saving Mass. Money?

By Adam Reilly

Sept. 27, 2011

Watch the video piece that aired on September 26 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — After Governor Deval Patrick pushed through a 2008 law that made Massachusetts the last state in the nation to allow the use of civilian flaggers at some construction sites, Massachusetts police warned that the change wouldn't save any money.

"They keep talking about cost savings," Rick Brown, the president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, said last year. "We say there are no cost savings."

Civilian flagger at construction site. (Lisa Young/123RF)

That may be overstating it, but three years later, it's clear the shift to flaggers was over-hyped. Thanks to a loophole that exempts cities and towns, Boston still hasn't hired a single flagger for a local construction project. Neither has Somerville or Brookline or Cambridge. In fact, of the 166 communities WGBH and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University contacted, 136 haven't used a single flagger yet.

Still, Tom Broderick, Massachusetts' chief highway engineer, insists that on the state level, the switch to flaggers is working well.

"Right now," Broderick told WGBH, "we've saved $23 million that otherwise would have gone to just details, as opposed to a combination of details and flaggers that got implemented by the regulation."

But when we dug into that claim, it wasn't nearly as impressive as it initially sounded. Much of the $23 million savings touted by Broderick comes from other parts of the flagger regulation, like new work rules for police details that don't involve flaggers at all. And when we asked Broderick what the state has saved specifically by replacing police with flaggers, he couldn't answer. Here's the exchange in question:

Q: "Do you have a sense of what chunk of that $23 million is specifically from the state's ability to substitute civilian flaggers for police details?"

A: "Offhand - no, I don't have that figure."

Q: "Do you have a sense of whether it's $3 million, $10 million, $15 million? Whether it's the majority of the $23 million or a small piece of it?"

A: "No. No, I don't."

A state auditor's report from 2009 may offer some insight. That report, by former auditor Joe DeNucci, suggesed that savings specifically from flagger use only constituted about 11 percent of the savings touted by the state to that point. If that's still the case, the real savings from flaggers isn't $23 million, but more like $2.5 million.

David Tuerck, the head of Suffolk University's conservative Beacon Hill Institute, said he's not surprised.

"Everyone could have expected that the success would be quite limited at first," Tuerck said. "Because all that the state did was take some of these jobs, these traffic direction jobs, and hand them over to workers who are getting the prevailing wage, getting almost as much as the police were working the details."

That's another big loophole: Thanks to the state's generous prevailing wage law, Massachusetts pays an average of $32 an hour for flagmen. What's more, flaggers can't be used on busy high-speed roads.

Tuerck argued that the law needs to be revamped so flaggers work in more places — and make a whole lot less.

"Everybody knows that the only way to get real economies is to hire civilian flaggers at the market rate of say 15 or 20 dollars an hour at most," he said. "[Then] turn the job over to them, and do so everywhere except where you really need a trained police officer to direct the traffic."

For his part, Broderick stressed that the flagger status quo is subject to change.

"We'd like to expand the use of flaggers in any way we can," he said. "But right now we're pretty much in the evaluation period... We are going to be looking at that probably the end of next year, the beginning of next year."

That's encouraging. But given how long it took Massachusetts to use flaggers at all — and how modest the gains have been — it's probably smart to keep your expectations to a minimum.

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