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Despite setbacks, Lewis County highway crews on schedule

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LOWVILLE — A typical day for Lewis County Highway Superintendent David L. Becker doesn’t include collecting photos of six-figure damage to area roadways, sewers and ditches. Nor does it entail completing a 40-hour workweek before launching immediately into emergency mode, evacuating residents from flooded properties and tending to damaged roads.

But that’s precisely what has happened in the county’s highway department since a flash flood struck Port Leyden last week. Mr. Becker and his crew are handling the crisis while still completing regularly scheduled work on time.

“They really should be commended,” said Legislator Craig P. Brennan, R-Deer River. “I think people tend to forget about this department unless they are affected.”

One crew worked Thursday on Number Three Road where, along with employees of Suit-Kote, Cortland, they repaved a one-mile roadway stretch.

Mr. Becker said a question he hears commonly is why segments of roads get paved, instead of the entire length.

“The state says we can only spend a certain amount per project,” he said. That means he focuses on a road’s worst parts and tries to plan ahead for its remaining sections.

Two other road crews worked at other locations Thursday, laying pipe for projects planned for next year. “We lay pipes a year prior,” Mr. Becker said. “That way they have time to settle. It prevents bumps from forming in the road.”

Mr. Becker has a four-year plan in place, calculating which roads will need attention and deciding how to stretch funds received from the state’s Consolidated Highway Improvement Program.

Sometimes, however, things don’t go as planned. The French Settlement Bridge in Harrisville threw a wrench into those plans after an inspection last year. Inspectors determined that plows, school buses with full loads and lumber trucks no longer were allowed to cross the bridge. Mr. Becker had to rework his priorities.

Using CHIPs money, he planned for the necessary repairs, involving a new concrete composite deck and steel. Still, the funding fell $44,000 short to complete the job.

“We really couldn’t afford to give the full amount,” Mr. Brennan said. “But he got creative and he came back and asked for $10,000. That was something we could do.”

Thanks to Mr. Becker’s creative fundraising, no projects were scrapped. Instead he shortened some of the planned repaving to recapture $34,000 for the bridge.

A second bridge project is planned for summer 2015 using grant money. The county will pony up a 5 percent match to replace the Van Amber Road Bridge.

Mr. Becker expects all repaving projects for this summer to be complete by the end of June. He has also reestablished a four-man bridge crew to wash and seal all bridges, complete guardrails and do scouring and welding work, “These guys know the roads,” Mr. Brennan said. “People should really take pride in our crews.” The highway department employs 20 full-time and seven part-time workers.

Behind the scenes and tucked in a basement office, Charlene Berrus and Christina Woolschalger keep the work flowing smoothly. “They track every piece of material that goes out every day,” Mr. Becker said. “They do man hours, paperwork for FEMA and CHIPs. They are fantastic.”

Highway departments are costly, what with equipment, materials and the know-how to do things safely and correctly. Yet historically, it’s a department that seems to take a lot of cuts, Mr. Brennan said.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. Roads “are essential to the economic growth of this county. We have limited rail and no air travel. All we’ve got are roads. If some major company wants to come here and they visit and all they see is potholes and roads that are impassable, they aren’t even going to consider coming here. We’re lucky that’s not what they’re going to see.”

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