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Prepared by Andrew Gates 314/340-4161

August 14, 2008 12:00 AM
MoDOT Motorist Assist on road for 15 years

ST. LOUIS - In 15 years, the uniforms have changed, the vehicles have changed and many of the people have changed. But, in the 15 years since the Missouri Department of Transportation motorist assist trucks took to the highways in St. Louis, one thing hasn't changed: the enthusiasm and pride each operator brings to the mission.

The motorist assist program in St. Louis was born in late 1992 - the brainchild of Hank Krull, who saw the effectiveness of similar programs in Minneapolis, Illinois and Houston. The first vehicles got on the road, assisting drivers around St. Louis, in February 1993. Initially, the project was funded by Federal Clean Air funding. Today, MoDOT uses funds from its construction budget which includes some Federal money. Since operators assisted nearly 48,000 drivers and traveled almost one million miles in 2007, motorist assist continues to be a valuable way to keep traffic moving around the region.

"This was a great program to get started," Krull said during a recent celebration of the 15th anniversary of the motorist assist. "We knew that we would be successful if we could get the public to recognize us, and to like us."

The program began with eight operators - four for the morning, four for the afternoon - and one supervisor, Mel Borgman, who was originally a safety officer for MoDOT. They patrolled three routes: I-70 from Route 94 to I-270, then on I-270 from Dorsett to the Rock Road; I-70 from Cypress to Riverview; and I-64 from Ballas to Kingshighway. The fourth operator, and the supervisor, filled in when operators were ill or when major problems arose. The program expanded twice in 1996 - adding a total of 16 operators, another patrol route, and four more trucks, for a total of 14 vehicles.

From the early days of the program, MoDOT partnered with fire and police department partners, as well as with the Illinois motorist assist crews, to bring the pieces together to create a first-rate program. "We needed a lot of support - a lot of help - to ensure sustainability," Krull, who has since retired from MoDOT, said. "As we worked with the highway patrol and the fire department, the pieces fell into place."

 "We didn't know what we were starting, (in 1993)," said Borgman, who retired from MoDOT, but still works part-time for the department. "We learned a lot as we went - every operator has to know a lot of different things. When we were interviewing, though, we looked for three qualities. They had to have some mechanical ability, they had to have the ability to deal well with the public, and they had to be able to think on their feet."

The third ability was crucial during the initial days of the motorist assist program, as the operators learned a lot in the first year. "That first year, we had the darndest snow you ever saw," Borgman said. "That was a great learning experience as we found out what we could do. We pushed a stalled bus off the highway and helped get the roads clear.  We pushed, pulled, whatever it took to get the job done."

The news media was aware of the impact of motorist assist early on as well, Borgman relates. During some initial training runs, two operators came upon a news reporter from a local television station along side the road. Over the course of helping that reporter, the two operators got some publicity for the program. That publicity continues to 15 years later, as reporters still request ride-alongs with motorist assist operators during major snowfalls.

"Over the years, we have evolved greatly, mostly in appearance, driven by safety," said Bruce Pettus, the St. Louis incident management coordinator, who oversees the motorist assist program. "The foundations of providing quality service to MoDOT and the public were instilled into all 83 of people who have worn the uniform through our 15 years. Completing 15 years of operations is significant - we've come a long way because of what our operators do every day."

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