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Winter storm highlights need for more highway workers

Lombardo asked if state transportation officials could waive certain licensure requirements to address a shortage of workers who keep roadways clear.
Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
State Government
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Two days before a winter storm shut down government offices in Northern Nevada, Gov. Joe Lombardo asked if certain licensure requirements could be waived by the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) to address a shortage of highway maintenance workers who keep roadways clear.

The storm that began Wednesday night and left between 4 and 13 inches of snow in the greater Reno-Carson-Tahoe area, led to dangerous road conditions and caused Lombardo to reissue the office closures Friday morning, though no measurable new snow had fallen the previous night. 

Friday morning, roads in the region were still covered in ice and snow. In those conditions, a semitruck jackknifed across all lanes of Interstate 80 (the semitruck did not have chains on its tires), and at least one person died after a rollover crash on I-80 East near Gold Ranch Road on Friday morning.

Officials with NDOT said speed and driver behavior contribute to a majority of crashes statewide, and highway maintenance staff started prepping for the storm last week, alternating between 12-hour shifts for 24-hour coverage (one day shift and one night shift). They said workers will continue to do so until the storm's effects are fully addressed. They added that because the storm had a unique travel pattern, coming from the north instead of through the mountains, it had unique effects.

“Reduced workforce does continue to have an effect on maintenance operations,” NDOT spokeswoman Meg Ragonese said in a phone interview Friday with The Nevada Independent. She added that administrative staff are augmenting coverage, and the department does everything it can to ensure the safest road conditions possible.

NDOT maintains roughly 5,000 miles of highway statewide, including roughly 1,000 miles in northwestern Nevada.

Department officials highlighted the need for highway maintenance officials during Tuesday’s Board of Examiners meeting, noting that the department has a 37 percent vacancy rate in the greater Reno-Sparks-Tahoe area (approximately 91 positions) as part of a request to approve a critical labor shortage designation for highway maintenance workers. Highway maintenance workers maintain the integrity of roadway surfaces and operate everything from a snowplow to a motor grader or tractor, among other machinery.

Felicia Denny, assistant director of administration at the Nevada Department of Transportation, said that though the department is trying to be proactive by conducting job fairs and outreach to recruit employees, it takes time and training, and the requirement for a commercial driver’s license significantly hinders recruitment. 

Lombardo asked during the meeting if the department could waive the commercial driver’s license requirement and conduct in-house training. A commercial driver’s license is required for the operation of any singular vehicle 26,001 pounds and heavier, can transport over 15 people, is carrying hazardous materials or has a tanker or a double or triple trailer. 

Denny replied that she did not believe the department could waive the license requirement.

“We do do in-house training but I can find that out,” Denny said. “These are large pieces of equipment, and it’s very important for safety that the workers are qualified.”

As a follow-up, Lombardo said he understood that the department couldn’t waive the qualifications, but he wanted the department to consider ways to address the “exorbitant amount of vacancies.”

Commercial driver’s licenses in Nevada include requirements for passing vision, written and skills tests, along with vehicle inspections and on-the-road driving tests. Those seeking a commercial driver’s license must first obtain and hold a learner’s permit for at least two weeks prior to taking their tests.

The Nevada Department of Transportation offers specific highway maintenance training, one-on-one supervision, snow removal, guardrail repair, defensive driving techniques and other time-intensive training mechanisms.

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