Traffic | Globe Editorial

Not sweating the (police) details

January 3, 2011

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THE RECENT repairs on the Craigie drawbridge provide a banner example of why police details inflate construction costs even when it makes sense to have uniformed officers directing traffic.

The first stage of that project, which required the closing of the inbound stretch of Route 28 in front of the Museum of Science for about a month, seriously disrupted commuting patterns. Using police rather than less costly civilian flaggers was certainly reasonable. And the state deserves credit for scaling back on the number of details as the project progressed. That cut costs from about $48,000 in week one to about $30,000 in week three.

But that’s still a lot of money. In Boston alone, on most weekdays, the project had 11 detail officers and one supervisor in the morning, plus one detail officer in the evening, for a daily cost of about $2,300. Additional officers on Fridays pushed that day’s cost to about $2,800.

Here’s the rub. By 9:30 a.m. or so, traffic had tailed off to a light flow. Yet the detail officers stayed on duty until 11 a.m. Most mornings, a post-rush-hour driver could see three or four officers near City Square in Charlestown and an equal number along North Washington Street in the North End, doing little that the traffic lights alone couldn’t have accomplished.

Why? Simple. Their stint started at 7 a.m. and their contract, like almost every police contract, calls for a four-hour minimum. Thus the state ended up paying a dozen traffic-control officers for significantly longer than they were needed. That’s one big reason that civilian flaggers save money. When they aren’t necessary, they aren’t deployed.