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VDOT criticized after worker struck

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Posted: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 10:55 pm | Updated: 4:43 pm, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

The Virginia Department of Transportation denied a contracting firm’s request for a state trooper to monitor the Afton Mountain work zone where a man was nearly killed in a hit-and-run accident, but will now be providing some coverage at the site.

“We’re learning from the experience there,” VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter said.

But the president of the company the injured man works for said VDOT still isn’t providing enough protection there and should provide protection at other bridge work zones as well.

Jose Porfirio Martinez, 50, of Reston, was expected to be released from the University of Virginia Medical Center either Wednesday or today, said the company’s president, Nyein Min. Martinez is an El Salvadorian immigrant who has been in America about a decade and a good worker, Min said.

He was working on a bridge joint around 4 a.m. Saturday when he was hit.

The car that hit him — a 1999 Buick, according to state police — was plowing through cones when Martinez noticed it, Min said. The worker tried to jump aside, but didn’t quite make it out of the vehicle’s path, ending up with a broken leg and hand, among other injuries, according to Min.

Virginia State Police later charged a Lithuanian basketball standout and Miller School graduate, Vitalija Vasciunaite, 22, with driving under the influence and felony hit-and-run. Vasciunaite had been staying at the Miller School and borrowed the car from an acquaintance there, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. The car's owner called police when it was returned with damage, Geller said.

Hatter said work zones are dangerous places, but any crash is one too many.

“It’s a very dangerous, dangerous occupation and it’s particularly dangerous at night,” he said.

Between 2004 and 2008, eight workers were killed in work zones, half by motorists, half by construction equipment, according to Hatter. None worked directly for VDOT.

According to state police, the work zone was well lit and clearly marked, but Min said he asked for a state trooper anyway, because he considered it dangerous for his men to work there.

He had gotten similar protection elsewhere in the state for past jobs, he said. But for the current contract, VDOT officials refused to provide the trooper, because there was no funding for such protection, he said.

Hatter said that Min was told there was no funding because officials didn’t write any into the project’s budget, which in turn was because the practice in this part of the state has long been not to use troopers on bridge rehabilitation projects.

“The judgment was made that the troopers aren’t necessary on those types of projects,” Hatter said.

Local VDOT officials do use troopers for repaving projects, Hatter said. He said the projects stretch for miles, and work crews are often out of sight of the start of the work zones. So, he said, drivers often speed up as they pass long stretches of what looks like an inactive work zone, necessitating the troopers’ presence.

Additionally, bridge work zones are so short that troopers would end up tucked behind the trucks parked to absorb crashes, making cruisers much less visible and therefore less useful as a deterrent, Hatter said.

Hatter said the situation could be different in other parts of the state. He noted that, for example, urban areas tend to deploy more troopers because of factors including heavier traffic volumes.

Another contractor said that troopers are typically easy to get from VDOT in many other parts of the state, but are sometimes not supplied in the Charlottesville area.

After Martinez was hit, Min, an 18-year VDOT employee who retired a few years ago and started his own company, renewed his request for troopers in an e-mail to VDOT.

The state said it would provide some state police coverage at the bridge where Martinez was hit: random intervals of four hours, two or three nights each week during the current stage of work and a random eight-hour stretch each night when the crew puts an epoxy overlay on the structure. But the state won’t provide troopers for any of the other bridges the crew will work on. (Crews work a 12-hour shift, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Min said.)

Hatter said the bridge on the mountain is at a curve and on a steep hill. The others are on more level ground with excellent lines of sight, he said.

Hatter said that random coverage is effective because motorists tend to disregard troopers who are in the same spot all the time, simply sitting, but tend to be more cautious when the trooper might or might not be there.

But Min questioned the value of sporadic coverage.

“Right now, I don’t feel that we have very safe work zones, and if you do it randomly, people don’t care that much,” he said.

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