Christie gave plow drivers 25% pay hike. Why?

My story in today's Inquirer on snow removal -- and politics:

Why has New Jersey spent more to plow snow this winter than it did two years ago, when three times as much fell on the state?

The state Department of Transportation attributed the increase - $22 million as of Tuesday, compared with $21.2 million for the entire snow season two winters ago - to more statewide storms, which require its plows to be dispersed more widely.

Plus, this year the Christie administration increased by 25 percent the amount it pays contractors to plow, department spokesman Joe Dee said.

"We're competing with other agencies and the private sector," he said, "so it made sense to be more competitive this year."

But transportation workers and union officials offered another explanation, citing December 2010, when Gov. Christie found himself vacationing in Florida as a snowstorm crippled the state. Since then, they say, New Jersey has been more aggressive in making sure its plows are ready to go - even if the forecast calls for just a dusting.

For many residents of New Jersey, interaction with the government is limited to garbage pickup, driver's license renewal, and snow plowing. If the government falters in one of these areas, politicians are liable to hear about it at the ballot box.

Plowing "is one of the very tangible ways that government manifests itself to people," said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison.

"So the governor, in this election year, has a vested interest in making sure the roads are plowed and people perceive state government to be on top of any snow accumulation."

A state worker who serves as a liaison between foremen and contractors said increased vigilance about winter weather began "after that big storm when the governor wasn't there."

The worker, who asked not be to be named for fear of retaliation, said that he had been called to do plowing jobs five times this winter - but that contractors actually plowed only two of those times. The other times, they sat around drinking coffee, he said.

The worker said the reason contractors' pay has increased from an average of $137.62 an hour to $172.15 is that their pay for "standby" time has gone up. That was done to accommodate contractors who were called out last year for predicted snowstorms that did not occur and were paid only for a few hours at the lower standby rate. 

Transportation Department spokesman Dee said he could not confirm the rates cited.

Union officials said overtime pay for their workers has gone up as the state has gotten more aggressive in responding to forecast storms.

This winter, New Jersey has seen several dustings and only a few significant storms, like the one forecast to hit this week.

National Weather Service stations in Newark reported a total of 20.7 inches so far this season, compared to 68.2 inches during the 2010-11 season. In Pomona, near Atlantic City, snowfall has reached 11.4 inches this year, compared with 38 inches two years ago.

But the plows have nonetheless been out in full force.

"Given that this governor faced serious criticism in the media for being absent during the first significant snowstorm of his administration, this is one area that he wants to be particularly aggressive in this election year," Harrison said.

The December 2010 blizzard hit New Jersey while Christie was vacationing at Walt Disney World and the lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, was out of state visiting her ailing father.

With nearly three feet of snow in certain areas and some roads closed for days, Democrats attacked Christie for his absence. Some called it "Christie's Katrina."

Christie refused to apologize and later graded the state's response with an A for effort and a B-plus for results. The bipartisanship and frankness that he displayed during Hurricane Sandy has all but erased the memory of that blizzard, as Christie is now seen as something of a model for how politicians should respond to disasters.

Despite the increase in contractor costs, New Jersey appears to be getting a good deal - at least compared to Pennsylvania. There, state workers do much of the plowing, but the hourly rate for contractors using the largest trucks is $209 per hour in Bucks County and $262 per hour in Montgomery County, transportation officials said.