Montgomery County was the first county to shut down on Friday, March 13 due to the coronavirus outbreak. The next week, and weeks to follow, the pandemic would force other counties in District 6 to close as well as other PennDOT Districts across the state. However, during that first week of closures, District 6 Traffic Control Specialist Manager Fran Hanney thought quickly on how to update highway occupancy permits (HOP) inspections so that essential work could continue for the public's safety. “We live in an age of technology," said Hanney. “I brainstormed how we could let these activities continue while still protecting workers."
Hanney was placed on a PennDOT Central Office committee to develop policies for HOP's and Utilities through the COVID-19 time period. “I was honored and grateful to be placed on the committee and develop statewide policy," he said. PennDOT's permits office personnel had been working with PECO Energy Company on their COVID-19 comprehensive plan so utility work could continue. Hanney said PennDOT adopted that plan and changed it a little to meet the department's needs. The new plan developed a virtual inspection which allows PennDOT to verify if specific work is being done correctly on jobs, such as, backfilling, paving, testing, and wok zone set ups. “We were searching for a mechanism that allowed us some form of oversight," Hanney stressed. “Otherwise, if we do not witness what the permitee is doing, that's not good for anyone."
The new inspection consists of the permitee having daily communication with PennDOT Permit staff though pictures and a virtual form that needs to be filled out and emailed. If a permitee does not send the required pictures or paperwork, they are aware that their work can denied and shut down for failure of complying with the virtual inspection.
The new form is titled - Job Aid COVID-19 Interim Virtual Inspection Requirements for Underground Construction Within PA State Highways. The form explains to the permitees that their work must be reviewed and classified as emergency, life-sustaining work or received a waiver from the Department of Community and Economic Development. Work must also adhere to the Governor's social distancing guidelines in order to proceed. The permitee must then submit daily photo documentation of work performed, daily log of work activities, material certifications, test results, and other pertinent information that documents proper restoration of the state highway.
Nothing has been determined yet if the new virtual process would continue post COVID-19, but Hanney points out that for now it allowed work to continue and helped save some jobs. COVID-19 forced many PennDOT workers to telecommute. Hanney acknowledged that although the pandemic brought a very unfortunate situation to everyone, it has also highlighted that PennDOT employees are able to adjust outside of the normal business office environment. “Telecommuting has proven we can be an effective workforce anywhere."