ODOT pony driver: Eyes of the highway

Posted May 15, 2019 by

Read more stories like this in the Spring edition of the Public Employee Quarterly.

While there aren’t many of them in the Ohio Dept. of Transportation, delivery drivers are critical to ODOT operations and keeping citizens safe on Ohio roadways.

Now, 25 years into state service, Phil Carter hasn’t always been a delivery driver, often called “the pony.” He started off as a highway worker, and in the winter, he still plows snow overnight. But it’s his stint as a pony driver, where Phil’s become somewhat of a legend among Dist. 5 ODOT employees.

His friendly demeanor and work ethic—he rarely calls off—have caused managers and OCSEA bargaining unit employees alike to gravitate toward him. “Phil is just one of those guys who helps people,” said Vicki Sharrock, a steward at the Muskingum County garage who sees Phil often along his pony route.

Phil’s philosophy: “We have courtesy and manners, and we respect the traffic on the road.” He has a good working relationship with everybody, he says. “You treat people like people, no matter what,” said Phil, who is his Chapter 4500 Vice President as well as a steward.

As a pony driver, Phil logs about 300 miles a day in the Muskingum area where he runs between seven county ODOT garages and the ODOT Dist. 5 Headquarters. He also travels to Columbus and makes nearly a daily run to the ODOT sign shop to pick up road signs that need replaced.

He packs his van up the night before with parts for snow plows and other trucks, drums of hydraulic liquid, motor oil and windshield wiper fluid, batteries, hoses, paperwork or bills that need signed, road signage—you name it.

The pony driver is key to the whole operation, according to Phil. “If we didn’t have the parts and supplies getting there, we couldn’t operate our plows or our trucks,” Phil said. “The pony driver is the key to the mechanics.

”Logging so many miles a day puts Phil in a unique position to be “the eyes of the highway,” too. When he encounters dead deer, roadway debris, stranded motorists and other potential roadside hazards, he calls the county garages so they can dispatch crews out immediately and ward off potential accidents.

Traveling around from garage to garage allows Phil to talk to OCSEA members about their issues and concerns.

“I interact with people. Sometimes people say I’m preaching, but it’s the only way I’m going to get this to you,” he said.

Phil also tries to motivate people to get involved in the union, not to just sit on the side-lines: “I encourage people to go to chapter meetings. If they have a problem, I say, ‘Come, we’ll fix it, we’ll figure it out together.’”

He makes sure to have a one-on-one with every new ODOT employee in the district. “People don’t know the good things the union is doing until you tell them, so I tell them.”

“One of the things I do with my new employee orientation is I look them in the eye and we shake hands. I tell them, I’m your mentor and you can call me 24/7,” he said. “You can always call my phone,” he said.

He recently started a “coffee and donuts” appreciation event at the garages, where members can come and talk and interact with the union.

After the Janus decision came down last year, Phil had to reassure some of his members that the union wasn’t going any-where: “I told them no, you’re fine. Stay with me. I’m going to be here for life. The union’s not going anywhere. We’re going to fight to the end. So join me.”