Highway Superintendent Robert Wyant and the Town of Rhinebeck
Lori Lovely – CEG Correspondent - July 2023
When Robert Wyant won election to become highway superintendent of Rhinebeck in 2020, he put to use the lessons he'd learned from his predecessors and capitalized on his years of experience in the department, as well as the connections he'd made along the way.
The Rhinebeck native worked for the village of Rhinebeck (which is distinct from but lies within the town of Rhinebeck) from 1978 to 1986, after which he worked for the town for a year before starting his own excavating and paving company in 1987. He returned to work for the town highway department in 1996 as a foreman and has been there ever since.
Initially, he worked under Superintendent Gene Trombini. "He taught me to make sure everything looked good when we finish a project and to keep an eye on the budget," Robert said.
Trombini worked until he was 87.
"I learned a lot from him," Robert said. "He was meticulous. I still do things like he used to do."
Just as his predecessor kept the trucks clean, now Robert makes sure his equipment is spotless.
"We're fortunate to have a water department, so I use the fire hose to wash the sander after we use it."
He pointed out that they've gotten 20 years of use from a sander that typically has a life of approximately six to seven years.
After Trombini retired, Robert ran for the office in 2005. He lost to opponent Kathy Kinsella, but calls it "one of the best things that happened" because he learned from her, too.
"Kathy was from Manhattan," he said. "She was kind of a paper person — paid a lot of attention to detail. Communication was very important to her."
Because of her example, Robert still returns every call he gets.
Because Kinsella had never worked in a highway department, she gave Robert a lot of leeway as assistant superintendent to do things the way he wanted. However, she taught him not to let things fall through the cracks.
Picking Up the Mantle
In 2020, the time for Robert to seek election was right.
"I knew what had to be done and what was expected of a superintendent," he said. The man who was "always in the background" was now in the spotlight.
Despite the knowledge and experience he'd acquired, nothing prepared him for dealing with a global pandemic in his first year in charge of the highway department.
"Dealing with COVID was very difficult," he said. He rotated the seven-man crew so three people worked every three days.
Labor was only half the battle. "It was crazy — trying to get materials," Robert added. "Everything was a lot harder. We ordered a new truck, but won't see it for a year."
Fortunately, his town board was very understanding. Realizing the increase in prices for paving and road improvement work, they provided him with the budget he needed to get the job done.
The Job at Hand
Robert's duties include maintaining 114 lane miles of road, nearly all of which is paved.
"We used to do six miles of Dutchess County roads, but we no longer do," he said, adding that they have only two dirt roads left, both of which are driveways.
Much of the department's annual operating budget of $1,945,373 ($274,979 of which is CHIPS) is dedicated to paving or sealcoating, with the goal of doing four miles per year. Robert spends a little extra on fiber matting but said "it pays dividends."
Fiber matting is a simple concept, he said. "We put down a coat of oil, then chop up fiberglass strands into three-inch strips and lay it over the oil. Then we place stone on top. It reinforces the oil and stone."
The fiber mats prevent "alligator" cracks. "It's a good surface," Robert said. "It costs a little more but lasts longer."
Fiber mat lasts up to 10 years, as opposed to just oil and stone, which lasts six to seven years. It's also more labor-intensive, but he said it doesn't take much longer to put down. He uses it as a wear surface even on roads he later paves over.
When snow falls, those roads are divided into seven plow routes, each of which takes approximately four hours to complete. Although the weather pattern has been changing and the area has seen more rain than snow of late, the average annual snowfall is about 40 inches.
Additional duties include mowing one historical cemetery and taking care of Rhinecliff's roads. Rhinecliff is a hamlet settled in the 1600s and now inhabited largely by New Yorkers, who take advantage of the hour-and-a-half train ride to New York City, due to an Amtrak station in the area.
"The person who designed the roads didn't look at the landscape," Robert said. "Some roads run off the cliff into the Hudson River. They are very narrow streets."
In addition to the day-to-day duties, Robert oversees several projects. The crew is currently doing some drainage work in Rhinecliff as they prepare for this year's paving and fiber matting.
A project in the planning stages is the Parnsonage Street Bridge, one of six the department is responsible for. A busy bridge, it has a lot of traffic because it's a direct route to the schools.
The 100-year-old-plus bridge sustained storm damage in 2012 from Hurricane Irene.
"We did repair work on the footings, but it needs a complete replacement," Robert said.
His crew had to adhere to a strict schedule while replacing the footings because of a trout stream.
"We used over 1,600 sandbags to divert two feet of water." He proudly reported that they completed the work ahead of schedule and under budget.
He hopes to secure a BRIDGE NY grant to help fund the $2 million replacement project. The program, administered by the New York State Department of Transportation, invests in local roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure throughout the state. Robert intends to contract out most of the work and says their engineer, Paggi and Son, will monitor.
Other projects on the to-do list include replacing White School House culverts and more drainage work in Rhinecliff.
Job Well Done
In only his second two-year term, Robert has already completed a significant amount of paving — some of it with help from other townships, to save taxpayer dollars. Rhinebeck and some of the other nearby towns often help each other.
"We rebuilt a 1972 Blaw Knox paver and have put down at least 6,000 tons with it so far," he said.
The department recently completed a big drainage project on Cove Road.
"The old pipe was down 20 feet and needed to be replaced," Robert said. The work was done in-house and under budget.
One of Robert's most innovative projects is the brine-making machine and applicator he built in 2020.
His kids say all he talks about is the brine maker, but it's an important innovation that saves the town money and is better for the environment than other snow-melting options. "I believe in brine," Robert said.
Always learning, he said, "I did a lot of research to make sure it was the right thing to do." He even talked to a "salt guru." Once he saw one on YouTube, he believed he could build it. "It looks simple and easy. You just mix salt and water to get a 23.3 percent salt solution."
Robert asked the town board for the budget to build it. Then, he acquired two 500-gallon tanks, some pipes and fittings and three gasoline pumps.
"We can make 800 gallons of brine in 25 minutes." He estimates that an automatic commercial equivalent would cost $30,000 to $80,000.
There's a formula based on weather and temperature to calculate how much is put down per lane mile. Robert applies between 250 and 600 gallons per lane mile — averaging 350 to 400 gallons, he said. He bought a computerized applicator to help manage the application. "It beeps if we go too fast."
The brine maker and applicator save approximately 13 tons of salt, according to Robert. He estimates that it takes about 18 tons of salt to do Rhinebeck's roads, allowing for 30 percent to scatter off the road during application. This year alone, he saved 105 tons of salt — approximately $10,000.
In addition to saving money on materials, he also saves money on labor. Instead of having to call in all the guys after the storm hits for overtime hours to spread salt, he can "send one guy out during the day before the storm for six to seven hours."
The brine stays on the road for 48 hours. This also makes brine a safer option.
"We can brine 48 hours in advance; it's still there when the snow comes," Robert added. In fact, he said, a layer of brine beneath the snow helps keep the roads clear better than applying 10 times more salt on top of the snow in the hopes of melting it.
While each storm is different, Robert closely observes weather reports, ultimately relying on his "best forecaster" — whitetail deer, who will often be out feeding in the daytime a day or two before a storm.
Deer are plentiful around Rhinebeck, a historic town in Dutchess County. Located in the scenic Hudson River Valley, with views of the Catskill Mountains, the town of Rhinebeck began as a European settlement in 1686, when a group of Dutch people bought 2,200 acres of land from three members of the local Sepasco tribe.
Beekman Inn was erected in 1766 and remains in operation as a hotel. It's considered the oldest inn in America. Officially organized in 1788, the town of Rhinebeck has numerous ties with revolutionary figures and presidents. George Washington visited in 1796, dining at Bogardus tavern. Aaron Burr and Morgan Lewis used other local taverns as campaign headquarters for the 1804 gubernatorial election (which Lewis won). Many years later, Franklin Roosevelt oversaw the design of the new post office.
By the 1850s, Rhinebeck had become a woodworking center known for producing quality milled wood products. A couple decades later during the Gilded Age, it became a popular spot for the wealthy to establish country estates. The Roosevelt Library and Home, the Vanderbilt mansion and the Mills Mansion are popular attractions.
Today, the well-placed town is home to many NYC commuters. The small town with a population of 7,800 also is a destination, with many restaurants, small shops, galleries, museums, festivals, a recently installed astroturf soccer field and the Dinsmore Golf Course and Park. Robert often plays on Thursday nights with a group of friends known as the Hackers, but also on weekends when he can find the time. Robert has a 10 handicap.
"I used to hunt and fish," he said, "but I married a Long Island girl. She changed my ways."
Married for 19 years, Robert and Jeanine met on karaoke night at a bar. "I used to sing karaoke and went to the state finals."
When he can't play golf, the family man with four grown children, a stepson and eight grandchildren works around the house. With one son in South Carolina, another in New York, a stepson in Pennsylvania, a daughter in Florida and another who recently passed away, many of his closest family members have scattered. However, his parents still live nearby.
His schedule at home is as full as his work schedule, but he said, "I like doing stuff myself." That includes taking care of the lawn, maintaining a saltwater pool and adding a new deck to his house.
To maintain the roads into, around and out of Rhinebeck that allow visitors and residents to see the sights and shop the stores, the highway department needs an extensive list of equipment.
The big equipment, in part, owned by the town includes:
- 2014 Mack 10-wheeler with a combo dump body, plow and wing
- 2015 Mack 10-wheeler with a combo dump body, plow and wing
- 2006 International six-wheel dump with plow and wing
- 2008 International six-wheel dump with plow and wing
- 2014 International six-wheel dump with plow and wing
- 2003 Ford F650 dump with a plow
- 2019 F 150 four-door pickup
- 2017 F350 super cab with plow
- 2017 F250 super cab with plow
- 2014 F550 one-ton dump with plow
- 2022 Hyundai 930 payloader
- 2006 Komatsu backhoe
- 2023 John Deere tractor with flail mower
- 2004 John Deer tractor with flail mower
- 2022 Hyundai 55 mini-excavator with brush cutter head
- 1972 Blaw Knox PF65 paver
- 2020 brine maker
- 2023 brine applicator
- 2004 Elgin sweeper
In addition, the town shares a bucket truck and a paver with four other townships. The county bought the equipment for the towns to share; their only cost is maintenance. But Robert opted out of one piece of shared equipment when he bought a mini-excavator and brush cut. He felt Rhinebeck had enough need to justify the purchase.
"We send it out in the winter when we don't have snow to clear," he said. "The guys can do one mile of road in three to four days. It's worked out well."
Equipment always needs updating and Robert recognizes that it's easy to fall behind, but he follows a maintenance and replacement schedule when he can. Large trucks and equipment are serviced at 200 to 250 hours; pickups are serviced at 5,000 miles; and small engines at 100 hours. Crews typically work on equipment during the winter.
The town still owns a 1972 paver. "It's an oldie but a goodie," Robert said. They bought it for $1,200. He estimates they have about $5,000 in it. "Replacing the back tires was expensive." But since it still runs and a new paver costs approximately $200,000, he's hanging onto it.
He would, however, like to replace the 2003 F650 with a utility dump truck and get a big roller.
All large equipment and trucks carry radios for communication, and the trucks also have GPS so he can keep track of their location.
Computers are used in the office for bookkeeping and daily logs, and to check weather forecasts. A Facebook page and the town's website help him alert residents about storms on the way and operations during bad weather.
Equipment is stored in the main garage — a 110-ft. x 85-ft. building constructed in 2000 (replacing a garage built in the 1950s) with six bays, a mechanics' room, upstairs storage and office space. There's additional storage in the 50-ft. x 80-ft. pole barn built in 1994.
The town's salt shed, also built in 1994, is 100 ft. x 60 ft., with 20-ft. wings on each side for more storage. There's enough undercover storage capacity for 2,000 tons of salt.
Citing his best day on the job as the day he took office and claiming he hasn't had a "worst day," yet, it's no surprise that before his current term ends in December 2023, Robert intends to run for another.
His wife said, "My husband has always been a very hard worker and has always loved the town he grew up in. Bob worked his way up the ladder in the highway department through hard work and reliability. He was elected by the people of this town because they knew the roads would be safe in the winter and the town would be cared for."
As part of his "ongoing education," Robert is a member of the NYS Association of Highway Superintendents and is an executive member of the Dutchess County Highway Superintendents.
"I enjoy working with other superintendents," he said. "You can always learn something new."
But his favorite part of the job is working for the town's residents.
"I grew up here. I know the history of the town."
He notices the number of new families moving in and is happy to answer their questions about his birthplace.
Considering it a privilege to be elected to the position, the Robert promises to be available and do his best. He credits his crew, the town board and the town superintendent. "It's important to get along," he said. "If I ever reach the point that I don't, it's time to leave."
Not anticipating that to be an issue, Robert plans to run for re-election.
"My future is to continue to work with the salt brine in the winter months, to keep our roads maintained and safe for travel and our equipment up to par, to keep my crew in good spirits and pass on what I know to them."
Always on the lookout for new ways of doing the "same old thing" better and more economically, Robert said he will continue to search for ways to improve the department's operations and protect the environment.
"I'm big on the environment. I want to leave it better for my kids. There are a lot of simple things you can do. Salt brine is one."
Despite calling himself "a little bit old-school," Robert insisted, "I'm always learning." And that continues to benefit the town of Rhinebeck. P