Out on the streets

By Grace Ramey, Watertown Public Opinion

     The employees at the Watertown Street Department wear many, many hats. On top of repairing and maintaining approximately 220 miles of roadway throughout the city, the Street Department is responsible for applying traffic stripes and markings, upkeeping traffic control devices and signs, removing snow and laying salt/sand mixture and sweeping the city’s streets daily. They also help control spring run-off, keep storm water management systems operable, assist in the construction of numerous park and recreation amenities, lead the annual spring city-wide cleanup week, mow city medians and curbs, spray herbicide where needed and assist in mosquito spraying.

     “Really what we are is a maintenance crew,” Street Superintendent Rob Beynon said. “We are the go-to department because we have the heavy equipment that’ll get the job done.”

     The department is comprised of 17 employees — one superintendent, one foreman, one administrative assistant, 11 street maintenance workers and three seasonal workers affectionately named “antique teenagers.” The full-time staff work nine-hour shifts each day depending on the weather. The busiest time for the department, according to Beynon, is in the spring when the workers are transitioning from snow plowing to road work.

     All department employees hold Class A CDL licenses, which allow them to haul truckloads over 26,000 pounds, and hazmat licenses. They are also certified for spraying herbicides and frequently attend training sessions specific to their positions. The street maintenance workers attend Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) each year for milling, while Rick Jacobson, the department’s sign and signal maintenance lead, goes to traffic control training each year.

     The Street Department crew is a tight-knit group of guys.

     “We’ve got a lot of great guys working here,” Beynon said while listing the workers he’s suggested for Employee of the Year.

     Jim Soucy, a street maintenance worker who has been with the department for about 32 years, appreciates what Beynon has brought to the job.

     “I’ve waited until the end of my career [to work for] a guy like Robby,” he said. “He’s the most technically efficient guy in that position.”

     “You get a lot of opposition in this job, people who love what you’re doing and people who hate what you’re doing,” Beynon said, “but if you drive through other communities our size, we have excellent roads compared to those communities.”

     “Safety is the biggest job,” he continued. “My job is to make the streets clean, clear and safe.”

 

Patching the streets

     Each day, the department sends its street maintenance workers, known as the “pothole patrol,” out into the city to make sure all roads are safe and functional.

     The maintenance program consists of extensive patching of city streets, scheduled annual asphalt overlays, seal coating of about 280 blocks per year, crack sealing on approximately 60 blocks per year and blading and graveling of surfaces and township obligations every four to six weeks.

     Street Department projects are acquired by a mixture of reports from citizens, scheduled maintenance and issues found by the department’s employees. Beynon, as the superintendent, helps make decisions on when to repave a road, but also relies on a Pavement Management Study done by Infrastructure Management Services (IMS), which uses laser scanners and other tools to conduct structural testing so the workers can project years ahead and determine what kind of repair will be needed on the streets.

     When doing patchwork, the street maintenance workers start by cutting, or milling, out the old, damaged asphalt. After packing the patch down, they add one lift of 1 ½ to 2 inches of hot asphalt heated to approximately 280 degrees and brought in from the local Duinick plant, even it out and let it cool slightly before adding a second lift. Using lutes, the crew will smooth out the asphalt as much as possible then drive a road roller over the patch. The roller uses vibrations to compact the asphalt down and static rolls to smooth the top until it’s seamless. The patch will then sit for several hours to cool before being opened to traffic.

     While the Street Department rarely, if ever, paves new roads, they are responsible for maintaining 220 miles of the city’s streets, and counting. Each year, the department acquires ¼ to ½-mile of roadway from private owners of properties, such as the newly-opened Trav’s Outfitters. The streets constructed on such properties must meet a list of specifications before the city can approve and acquire the roads. Once the specifications are met, the department adopts it into its ever-growing mileage of city streets within its maintenance program.

 

Painting the streets

     Jacobson, as the sign and signal maintenance lead, is the man in charge of repairing and maintaining all stoplights, street signs and road markings in the city except on highways, which fall under the state Department of Transportation.

     “You’re outside all day, always working on something,” Jacobson said.

     Jacobson frequently checks in on the city’s traffic control boxes, which signal the stoplights at each intersection. Though the state DOT programs all highway lights to traffic patterns when the control boxes are first installed, the Street Department is tasked with helping maintain them thereafter.

     Jacobson’s job also includes repairing street signs around town, both permanent and temporary. Permanent signs, which are assembled when needed, are bolted to stubs in the ground, making them easier to replace if they get damaged. Temporary, portable traffic signs, used when traffic signals go down or in construction zones, sit stored in one of the buildings in the Street Department complex until they’re needed. All signs are also numbered to keep track of them.

     But Jacobson’s favorite part of the job, he said, is striping. Jacobson repaints all traffic markings, such as turn arrows, double-yellow lane lines, parkings lanes and more, around town at least once a year depending on wear and tear. Each day, he tackles one sector of the city and lays a fresh coat of a rubber-based traffic paint on all markings within that sector using a motorized striping machine. The traffic paint is mixed with sand-like glass beads, which make the paint reflective, for all markings except for curbs and parking stalls.

     “It’s an art and it’s frustrating,” he said, “but it’s neat to see something worn out and make it nice and bright again.”

 

Cleaning the streets

     The department also has three broom trucks run daily to sweep dirt and other materials along city curbs. All three trucks are used in the spring to clean the streets after the winter, then just two are used throughout the summer and fall until the first snow when the department switches back to snow removal.

     All materials gathered by the brooms are then collected and taken to the Watertown Regional Landfill.

 

Funding

     The majority of funding for general projects is provided by the city, though the department does get some state funds. According to Beynon, the budget for annual mill and overlay work comes to about $900,000, which can cover about 3.5 miles of work.

     The department frequently works with the state and county DOT, as well as contractors. The DOT does the majority of all maintenance on the highways that run through the city, but the Street Department occasionally steps in to help out.

     “We try to work together [with the county] because it saves the tax payers money,” said Beynon.

 

Progress

     Beynon, who’s been with the Street Department for around four years and with the city since 1995, is actively working on advancing and improving the efficiency of the department. After spending many years in the city’s engineering department, he saw many ways the street department could be improved.

     “I feel I have made a lot of improvements,” he said. “We’ve gotten more cost-efficient. We’re implementing better equipment. We’re making positive changes. I’m really trying to grow this place out of the Stone Age.”

     

This photo story is a part of a Day in the Life photo stories produced for the Watertown Public Opinion. 

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