Cornell Local Roads Program

Two Local Departments Dare to Take on the Big Jobs

Adam Howell, Communications Specialist

Town of Wheatfield Culvert Replacement (left) and Town of Oswego Coulvert and Bridge Replacement (right)

Good planning and budgeting are important for keeping a highway department on track but there are always surprises. Maybe unplanned problems come in the form of a critical piece of equipment failing unexpectedly, or a natural disaster striking. When big problems happen, safety and cost are two competing pressures that often intersect.

Despite the obvious challenges posed by unforeseen calamities, there are also great opportunities that can present themselves for local departments willing (and able) to step up to the challenge. Increased credibility with constituents, experience, and the pride that comes from going above and beyond the regular call of duty are all potential rewards. In this article we are going to look at two town highway departments that each decided to take on a big project which, in the end, reaped big benefits for their communities and their own departments.

Town of Oswego Rathburn Road Bridge Replacement

Town of Oswego Highway Superintendent David Sterio had a big problem on his hands when it came to a town bridge on Rathburn Road over Rice Creek. In 2015 the town had been issued a yellow flag warning for the bridge by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) due to deteriorations in the bridge structure. This yellow flag warning was subsequently followed by a red flag issuance by NYSDOT in 2016.

Apart from the significant deterioration in the bridge structure itself, there were several problems associated with the original design and the surrounding terrain. The flat watershed tributary to the structure meant that there was a consistent large volume of water draining through the area. Ultimately, following the completion of a hydraulic and hydrologic (H&H) study, it was found that the bridge would have to be totally replaced instead of just being rehabilitated due to the structure not meeting current design standards for flood resiliency.

When the scope of the project was finally realized and the costs were tallied, the overall approximate estimate to replace the bridge was $440,000. The large price tag was more than the town could reasonably handle, so some sort of alternative solution had to be found. Even though a bridge replacement project was much more than what his team was used to managing, Superintendent David Sterio decided to see whether they could step up and help the town save money on the project. “I scratched my head and thought about whether we could cut costs by doing this ourselves,” David says. “I got my own estimates, figured out the budget and decided that we could take this on.” David was right, his budget of only $240,000 included savings from the highway department acting as their own general contractor and using the department’s own labor force and equipment for as much as the project as possible.

When David decided that the highway department would manage the project, he knew that he would be entering some uncharted territory since his department had not taken on anything of this scope before. Good planning and utilizing partnerships would be important to the success of the project. “If you’re going to build something, you have to have a good set of blueprints and a good set of specs,” David says. “I relied a lot on our engineers who were very helpful. We also drew on some guys here who had experience in things like concrete work.” Good planning also became critical to helping David save as much money as possible. Cost comparisons, using department labor when possible, and sending everything that couldn’t be done in-house out to bid helped the department stay on budget.

In the end, the project was a huge success for the highway department and the town. The department came in right on budget and saved the town over $200,000. For their efforts, the Town of Oswego Highway Department was honored for their work on the Rathburn Bridge project with the Transportation Project of the Year Award by the American Public Works Association. Looking back on the project, David has some honest advice for others who might be thinking about taking on a project that is a little more than what they are used to. “I don’t want to tell people to be afraid of anything because you don’t want to get in trouble by taking on more than you can handle, but you also can’t be afraid of trying new things. In the end, if you take on something like this, you need to roll up your sleeves, get to work, and get the job done.”

Town of Wheatfield Walmore Road Culvert Replacement

Paul Siegmann, the Town of Wheatfield Highway Superintendent learned in the Spring of 2016 that a large culvert in his town on Walmore road was in bad shape. “The culvert was shot, and the road wasn’t safe,” Paul remembers. “This was one of the main roads for the school district to drive on and to contract it out would have taken too long…...also the town wasn’t in a position to bond out the project because of previous project bonds they had issued.” This familiar meeting of fiscal stress and critical infrastructure inspired Paul to consider having the highway department replace the culvert themselves.

The barriers to undertaking a larger project are often different for each department. Sometimes the availability of equipment or the experience of the staff make larger projects difficult, for Paul it was the permitting process. “I pushed myself on this one,” Paul says. “I have been here for about 25 years and I remember that when I first started we used to do projects like these on our own. Over time though, it seems like things have become more difficult with permitting.”

In the Town of Wheatfield’s case, there were some welcome surprises that came from their experience with working on the Walmore Road culvert project. The permitting process was much easier to get though than anyone expected. “Don’t be afraid to talk to people like the DEC and the Army Corps,” Paul explains. “We made the calls and I did the drawings myself. They all worked with me and I was really surprised by how well.”

Once again, good planning and communication were the keys to a successful project. The local water department was instrumental in helping relocate a water pipe and local businesses located in an industrial park down the road had to be contacted regarding the temporary disruption due to the work. “It’s all about communication, if you give them enough time they will usually work with you,” Paul says.

In August of 2016, the Wheatfield Highway Department successfully completed the culvert replacement. The highway department closed the road and undertook most of the work on a Saturday to lessen the disruption to the flow of traffic. Overall the project was successful with limited traffic flowing after the main culvert pipe was installed. The total cost of the project was under $40,000 which included not only the new culvert but also a widening of the bridge from 23 ft. to 40 ft. which allowed for both heavier commercial traffic to pass over the bridge and a safer traverse for the public.

Challenge Accepted

Both the Town of Oswego and Town of Wheatfield Highway Departments decided that it was worth it for them to undertake these larger, less familiar projects for their town. The similarities between their approaches is striking and highlights what it takes to be successful. Both town superintendents communicated with all the stakeholders and put together a good plan before proceeding. Both departments built upon the already good relationship they had with their town and town boards to leverage support. Finally, both departments were able to push through and achieve each of those big, often conflicting goals of improving safety and saving money for their communities.

Of course, every municipal highway department situation is different. Different expertise and the experience levels of employees, the availability of equipment or other department pressures may mean that contracting out bigger jobs makes more sense and, in certain situations, is even more cost effective when everything is considered. All local highway and public works departments innovate and take on more in a variety of different ways and part of running a department means making decisions that are right for your community. The important thing is knowing what is right for you and that every now and then, it can be worth it to take on a new challenge.


Army Corps of Engineers NY District Permitting Webpage
Upstate NY Field Office Phone Numbers:
518-266-6350 (Permits Processing Team)
518-266-6360 (Permits Compliance & Enforcement)

New York Department of Environmental Conservation Permitting
Phone Number: 518-402-9167

Town of Oswego Highway Department Wins Transportation Project of the Year Award
Oswego County Today

Wheatfield Culvert Replacement by Paul Siegmann, Town of Wheatfield Highway Superintendent
Summer 2017 Edition of Town Highway Lines

Spring 2019

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This work by the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.