COVID-19 impacts county road work


County road work has slowed down some because of COVID-19.

As of now, the Dubois County Highway Department is keeping up with essential work that needs to be done while keeping employees safe.

“We’re calling in the people we absolutely have to have right now,” Highway Supervisor Steve Berg said. “And I’ve been flexible with the people here who may fit in that higher percentage of criteria of somebody becoming infected. We’re being a little more lenient with them.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, workers were sent home. “We sent people home for a short period of time because we wanted to be careful and not spread this virus,” he said. “Anything that was emergency, we’d call our guys out. That’s what we did for a short period of time.”

Now, workers are responding to damage from the recent storms, fixing signs that have been knocked down and mowing areas that need to get done. The bridge crew is sandblasting, priming and painting beams at the highway garage. The gates are locked so that the public doesn’t wander in.

“The bridge crew is inside in the confined space here,” Berg said. “Mowers are in the cab, so no one can get to them. So that’s safe. If we have emergency services where the guys have to go out, we make sure we keep our social spacing and distancing.”

But jobs that require workers to be in close proximity to each other are being postponed. “Like culvert replacements, we’re not doing that,” Berg said, “because that requires two people in a ditch shoveling and digging around utility lines and setting the pipe. It’s stuff like that that we’re pushing off for now.

“It’s all stuff we need to do,” he said, “but it’s stuff that’s not essential to do.”

Another effect from COVID-19 will be funding the department receives from the state for road work. Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe McGuiness estimated that travel has decreased by more than 40% for March.

“That impacts us because there’s no gasoline sales, and that’s what generates our revenue,” Berg said.”

The taxes that are collected on gas sales go to the state and are recomputed and sent back to street departments. That turnaround is about two months.

Because he knows there will be an effect, Berg plans to be extremely conservative with the department’s spending.

“Even if the coronavirus is kicked and the economy turns back around, I don’t know how quick the recovery is going to be,” he said. “There’s no mathematical equation to it, but it’s my gut feeling that we could probably see $200,000 less than we anticipated, and I don’t know if I’m close. So it’s best to go in on the short end.”

Big equipment purchases and big special projects are on hold for now. Berg has been out looking at the roads that are due to receive some base repair work. “When we take our equipment and rip the pavement up, we put stone down to build the base up, so that it will last a lot longer,” he said. “That’s the proper way to do it, but it’s a little more expensive to do it that way.”

Berg is now re-evaluating the upcoming roads that are due for the work and estimating the cost, to see if they can still be done.

“It’s just a guess right now,” Berg said. “There’s no way of knowing until we see some of these receipts come in, and see how much difference there has been. I don’t want to make any quick decisions and then be committed to something we can’t do.”

The county’s sanitation sites have also seen some changes. Instead of people purchasing sanitation stickers, they are directed to put their $1.50 in a cash bucket on site and then throw the bag in the dumpster. This way, the hand-to-hand contact with site attendants is eliminated.

“Everybody thinks it’s a great idea and they get it. They know going in that we won’t make change,” Berg said. “For the most part, people are throwing extra money in. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Berg is not sure how any of this will ultimately impact the work the department can get done. But his ultimate concern is keeping the staff safe and healthy.

“We all want to go home to our family in the evening,” he said. “That’s the big priority.”

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