Additional staff capacity could help DOTs stretch federal funds

By Aaron Westling

Recent federal funding programs offer states the opportunity to tap into large pots of money to implement a wide array of transportation projects. But with DOTs around the country already facing capacity constraints, the federal government is concerned that states may not be prepared to adequately implement projects once the funds are awarded, specifically in program areas that have historically seen less investment.  

Amit Bose, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, recently signaled that state DOTs, especially those that have mainly focused their efforts on highways, need to bolster their rail programs, including hiring staff with passenger rail expertise. “Passenger rail is a specialized craft. We need to make sure we have the resources and a focus on that. It’s not the same as building roads.” Bose went on to tell Route Fifty that some states will need to rely less on consultants and put an additional emphasis on bolstering the DOT staff that will have the public’s interests in mind.  

The concern around a lack of specialized, topic-specific employees ties into a larger conversation about state DOTs’ ability to recruit and retain a diverse, talented workforce. A report from the US DOT Inspector General in October 2022 stated that, “State and local governments—often the primary recipients of Federal infrastructure investments—are facing historic shortages of workers.” This shortage not only impacts their ability to handle future projects that are just now being funded, but also day-to-day operations, like keeping roads clear in the winter. States around the country are facing a shortage of plow-drivers, including Nevada who has been forced to ask residents to avoid unnecessary travel due to a 35% vacancy rate for permanent highway maintenance workers.  

This reality is forcing agencies to find new solutions in combating workforce shortages. One creative example can be found at the Colorado DOT, which has identified the state’s housing shortage, especially in notoriously pricey resort towns, as one of the reasons they are faced with a 20% vacancy rate for road maintenance workers. So, the agency is investing about $10 million to build housing specifically for road maintenance specialists in an effort to keep their staffing at the level necessary to keep the state moving. Ensuring safer working conditions is another strategy to bolster recruitment and retention. The Washington State DOT, for example, is shifting more road work to the daytime to increase visibility for both workers and drivers as well as reduce the risk of crashes caused by impaired driving or fatigue. While this change may slightly inconvenience drivers, committing to the safety of its employees is a necessary step in the eyes of WSDOT leadership.  

Photo Credit: Marty Bernard via Flickr, unmodified. License