Superintendent of Highways Martin Roberts and the Town of Reading

Laurie Mercer

With the exception of Watkins Glen — the historic home base to Grand Prix car racing — the ten remaining hamlets within the boundaries of the town of Reading are named with the modifiers “Corners,” “Junction,” “Station,” and “Point.”

That should give some idea of the pastoral landscape of this 27.2-square-mile town of little more than 1,700 residents. The boundaries can be confusing, though. “Part of the village of Watkins Glen is in the town of Reading, and at Captain Bill’s [a large, popular cruise boat featuring dinners on board], the boy’s bathroom is in the town of Reading, but the girl’s bathroom is in the town of Dix, said Martin “Marty” Roberts, the town of Reading Highway Superintendent.

New York state Route 14 is the major north-south highway, which parallels nearby Seneca Lake, making the town’s eastern boundary line. The other “major thoroughfare” is where New York state Route 1A intersects New York state Route 226 in the northwest part of the town called Coles Corners after early settlers.

“I’ve been here all my life,” said Marty with obvious pride. “Highway expenses are the biggest part of the budget in a town of this size, so it’s really important that we deliver the level of service our residents expect from us.”

“Service,” broadly defined for Marty, includes the ability to save money while not sacrificing the quality of the roads.

“Our main priority,” he said, “is to keep the school buses safely going to and from schools on our roads. I had a child on the bus myself for many years, so I know how parents feel about getting the kids home safely. Bus drivers don’t mind the runs up here from Watkins Glen and Dundee schools because we do a good job.”

Marty, who grew up on a family farm, joined the town’s highway department as a laborer. He said, “I got my operator’s license shortly afterwards and was an equipment operator until 1999.” He then became deputy highway superintendent until the former superintendent retired. He is elected but has run unopposed to date.

The annual operating budget is $440,525, of which the CHIPS allocation provides $55,432.

What’s the hardest part of the job? Marty answers quickly, “You have to stay within the budget and with quickly rising costs, especially for fuel …”

As an example, Marty said, for the 2008 budget he estimated fuel at $3 a gallon “even though gas was only $2 at the time,” he added.

“Now I’m already $1,000 in the hole, and it’s only half over.”

He said winter 2007 was busy with 15 ice events being responded to by his crew. “You can’t cut many corners on sand and salt,” he said. “With snow sometimes you can wait for it to pile up a little bit before you plow, but ice is a different story.”

The Town of Reading

Pours It On

In addition to maintaining 35.44 centerline miles of road in the town of Reading, Marty does winter maintenance on five centerline miles of additional roads on other county roads, using a combination of sand and salt on blacktop roads. Attempts to control expenses are evident everywhere. For example, Reading mows some of the county roads under contract, but now they are only one-strip wide whereas they used to mow swaths twice as deep.

Marty’s own cost cutting mentality helped the town secure some free salt from nearby US Salt.

“Our salt comes out of Lansing, N.Y., from a Cargill mine on the other side of Keuka Lake, and they ran out,” he said. “They pretty much ran out everywhere. But we actually have two salt evaporation plants nearby, and we were able to get some waste salt [to mix with sand] from US Salt.”

Waste salt, Marty explained, is what is sifted away from the desired product of larger grains called “pretzel salt.”

“Waste salt is the same thing as what you dump from a salt shaker,” he said. “It flashes, it melts. It also goes away faster, so you have to take that into consideration when timing your salt runs.

“Waste salt helps us with the budget. We go through 550 tons of salt, and I normally contract for 220 to 250 tons of rock salt. So using waste salt from nearby can cut my salt budget item in half, when I can get it.”

The Little Town’s Broad Industrial Base

In addition to the troves of tourists attracted to a major Finger Lake — beauteous Seneca Lake — which can be seen from several high hills, there is a large state park nearby, a burgeoning wine and vineyard touring industry, and international attention drawn to car racing in nearby Watkins Glen. The town of Reading has several other healthy industries that employ many local residents.

“We are very fortunate to have a lot of industry in this town,” said Marty. “There’s Columbia Gas, a NYSEG compressor station, Bill’s Machine Shop with 70 to 80 employees, and US Salt, where a new biomass boiler is being installed right now.’’

New energy feeds new needs according to Marty, who said he heard the new boiler will burn 12 to 25 tractor loads of locally produced [25-mile-radius] wood chips every day.

Water, Water Everywhere

Marty hates to see taxpayer dollars being wasted, so it particularly galls him that unregulated lumbering in this rural town has created serious erosion and flooding.

He said, “[With] just a bit of foresight in planning, any ground disturbance project can help to avoid having to clean up a mess. To mobilize equipment, remove the silt, clean the culverts, and restore vegetative cover is very costly, and we know that an un-stabilized road ditch will lose 20 tons of material per mile. Even more in highly erodable areas.”

The highway crew’s attention to ditching has changed over the years, with an eye more on erosion control than overall appearances.

“Our policy,” began Marty, “is to disturb as little vegetation during maintenance as possible. We don’t wholesale ditch — from end to end — like we used to. We also seed and mulch disturbed areas as soon as is practical. Crews even carry seeders in the trucks to apply seed [conservation mixes including fescues, clovers, and vetch] as soon as a ditch is cut.”

Reading also has eight and a half miles of gravel roads, which are unlikely to be paved any time soon.

“When we grade gravel roads we now leave a narrow strip of vegetation between the shoulder and the ditch to help prevent erosion,” Marty said. “We have rock-lined ditches in steep and high-volume areas, and we share a hydro seeder with other municipalities when wholesale ditching is undertaken. The hydro seeder speeds the repair process.”

Flooding events are an act of nature, but Marty cited just one example where flooding was “exacerbated” by increased sheet flow resulting from skidways — caused by logging operations — directly funneling storm water down steep slopes without water bars in place. In this instance, logging debris left in a stream washed down to the road, crossed culverts, and plugged two 84-inch pipes, which flooded nearby residences and forced overtime expenses.

This flooding event alone cost the taxpayers $1,000.

Marty’s suggestion? “I do believe that at least some sort of timber harvesting registration, if not regulation, is long overdue in this county.”

Oil on Gravel: an Expensive Mix

When Marty first took over the superintendent position, one goal he wanted to accomplish before retiring was to blacktop the town’s nearly 9 miles of remaining gravel roads. In view of the rising costs of operation, he realizes the gravel roads are here for now.

“The major issue on gravel surfaces is that they are hard to maintain. You have to keep up or they go backwards forcing major construction, and we can’t afford that.”

He said people who live on gravel roads sometimes complain about the dust, but they are unaware that weather conditions and time dictate when the roads get dust oil. Dust oil, he explained, is a product with an emulsion that helps control dust when it dries.

“Last year we spent $5,300 on dust oil. Next spring it’s all gone. Other than for the people living on gravel roads, it’s money thrown out the window.”

To determine priority needs in his town, Marty relies on traffic counters every other year. He said with school bus routes changing, the traffic also changes patterns.

“We don’t just throw a dart at a dart board,” he explained. “We have a five-year plan, and that changes. We have to update it a little. You have to be able to change your priorities to keep up.”

Capital Plan for Equipment

Marty credits the town board and the previous superintendent for keeping the best interests of the town in mind when it comes to replacing equipment.

“We came from almost nothing in equipment to being in pretty decent shape today,” he said. “The town board [four members and a supervisor] are all pulling together. I keep them very aware and report to them every month.”

Sharing specialized equipment with other towns and counties also has helped maintain costs. For example, Reading bought a wood chipper with the county and the towns of Dix, Tyrone, Hector and Orange. The cost to each municipality was just $1,900 plus costs for operation and a shared cost for insurance.

“It works out very well,” he said.

Schuyler, Steuben and Yates counties recently bought a stripping machine together. This act of cooperation alone, Marty said, will cut his stripping costs in half.

Other projects with work sharing often occur when roads are being sealed.

“They help us, and we help them as we go from town to town; it works out very well for us.”

Roots in Rural Cemeteries

Many residents may not realize that when a cemetery is no longer run by the group that assumed its care, the cemetery becomes the responsibility of the highway department. Imagine facing up to the challenge of crumbling old graves, depressions, overgrown trees and weeds in an uneven piece of ground.

Reading has three retired cemeteries and Marty has tried everything, including volunteer laborers from a nearby “shock camp” for maintenance, but the task is out of hand. Though the final resting places for many early residents are out of the way and largely overgrown, he said more people than ever before are visiting them while tracking down their family roots.

The cost of carefully caring for these cemeteries, established in the early 1800s, would be prohibitive. Marty does the best he can.

“This year I’m going to have to hit them with Roundup [an herbicide],” he said. ‘’I don’t like to do it, but we can’t afford to weed-whack them all.”

He even reluctantly returned a $5,000 donation from a historic group for repair because the cemeteries are so far gone that it would be impossible to determine which stones to repair and how to maintain them at a higher level.

Here Comes the Empire Pipeline

In the town of Reading, the Millennium Pipeline (jointly sponsored by units of NiSource Inc., KeySpan Corporation and DTE Energy) is being built to transport natural gas underground across New York’s lower Hudson Valley and Southern Tier.

Millennium Pipeline (originally planned for the Millennium year 2000 before it hit some obstacles) is the centerpiece of a larger NE-07 Project involving expansion of the existing Empire Pipeline, Algonquin Pipeline and Iroquois Pipeline.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the $1.04-billion interstate natural gas project to help bring Canadian and domestic gas to New York to meet rising energy needs.

Special pipe was manufactured for Millennium. Ships loaded with nearly 170 miles of 30-inch steel pipe (for a year of construction) were off-loaded in the Port of Albany in early March 2008. Pipe joints are trucked from various temporary pipe yards as needed.

The planned in-service date is November 2008, with mitigation and restoration continuing through 2009. Restoration includes final grading, site stabilization, reseeding, mulching and landscaping. Some regulated environmental monitoring will take place for several years.

The pipeline itself consists of 182 miles of 30-inch-diameter steel pipeline and enough compressor stations to transport up to 525,000 dekatherms per day of natural gas. From west to east, construction is taking place through portions of Steuben, Chemung, Tioga, Broom, Delaware and Sullivan counties to the eastern terminus in the town of Tuxedo in Orange County.

In Reading it is the 77-mile-long Empire Connector Project, running from near Rochester to Corning, N.Y., which will link to the Millennium Pipeline project. Workers coming through town have helped fill the campground with their campers. Marty often tours the site to be sure that the town’s roads are returned to their original condition, if not better.

More than 90 percent of the project will be installed in existing energy corridors and rights-of-way. Sponsors say careful environmental and cultural resource protection during development leads the way.

The Millennium Pipeline encounters 224 roads, ranging from two-lane gravel roads to busy highways. In Reading the heavy equipment traversing town roads uses a temporary low-tech solution by making a path over the asphalt consisting of rubber tires and plywood. Traffic along the entire route remains open to vehicles, if only one way.

With asphalt roads the pipeline is usually installed below the road with a special road-boring machine. Open-cut methods are most often used on gravel roads where a ditching crew uses heavy equipment to dig a trench that is later backfilled to contain the pipeline. Marty said that in his town some of the necessary rights-of-way were secured in a last-ditch effort on the part of homeowners hoping to get the best price for the right-of-way on their property for this great big ditch.

Marty and Crew

Most highway superintendents praise their help. Marty takes his praise to well-intentioned extremes. Two years ago, during the dedication ceremony of the new Reading Town Hall, Marty and his crew got to bask in the glow of real accomplishment with the new, state-of-the-art facility that cost $438,000, including the parking lots.

Gone was the former town hall — an old library — a building that was handicapped challenged and way too cold in winter to be productive for work. Thanks to the highway crew’s multi-tasking in construction, the 4,000-square-foot facility, with meeting rooms, a courtroom and security system including alarms and video cameras, became a reality. None of it would have been possible in the old town hall, which was designed as a library more than 50 years ago. The new facility costs half of what the old one did to heat and at a much more comfortable temperature.

“The land for the new town hall originally was bought from the Mennonite neighbor,” said Marty. “Our supervisor was very forward thinking and endorsed a new building.”

Marty did the original design work, and his crew accomplished all of the site work, excavation, forms, fill, insulation, paint, trim work and installation of doors. They contracted out the shell work, wiring and drywall, heat and AC and carpeting.

The dedication of the new town hall was one of great pride for Marty and his crew.

“These guys [Deputy Supervisor Walter Thompson, John Rockwell, Harold Ayers and Christopher Wood] come to work to work. They all get along flawlessly. My deputy is the heart of it all. He melds them,” Marty said.

Three of the four-man crew were hired by Marty because he respected their work ethic. One was a dairyman who wanted to stay close to his farm, another was working on a bridge construction crew and the third worked as an outside contractor on the new town hall. Marty said he relentlessly pursued him to come on board.

Concerns for the Town’s Future

Marty said Peggy, his wife of 25 years, is from the “bright lights” in Watkins Glen, contrasting Watkins Glen to Reading’s peacefully rural setting.

In Reading, he and his wife raised a daughter who just graduated with a doctorate in Pharmacy.

“She’s the first doctor in this family, that’s for sure,” he said with obvious pride. “She had six job offers in a week.”

While his wife works as a facilities coordinator for Cornell University, located about 50 minutes away from their hilltop home, she has the advantage of taking public transportation, which eliminates the cost of commuting and parking fees of up to $700 a year at Cornell.

As they ride his motorcycle together, the vibrations remind him that the steel wheel-driven Mennonite tractors are scaring up the asphalt. They just bought a tandem bicycle and enjoy relaxing on their recreational boat docked on nearby Seneca Lake. His territory includes six miles of shoreline.

Marty hunts turkey and venison, sometimes with a “muzzle loader” rifle, and many of his recipes seem to feature onions and peppers cooked with the meat over an open fire.

In a moment of quiet reflection and speculation about the future, Marty said, reflectively, “I’m concerned about what is going to happen to people on fixed incomes — people close to 80 years old who have been here all their lives. I think about what they will do. They live in farmhouses. They can’t deal with alternative heat sources like wood or pellets. They are at the mercy of $5.50 a gallon for heating oil. Do they go without medication? Do they cut back on food? These are the things that really bother me.

“The highway department is in the business of serving these people as best we can. Do we cut back on services? If so, where? We are going forward with some public meetings so that people can express their concerns. We are all in this together.”

About the Town of Reading

Certainly among the early arrivals in Reading were people from Reading, Pa., whose nostalgic spirit eventually named the town. The town is home to Schuyler County’s first manufacturing, begun in the late 1780s when John Dow started making spinning wheels and chairs, in addition to raising corn.

The hills, with spectacular views of the glacial lake, also attracted followers of Jemima Wilkinson, who founded a religious sect similar to the Quakers, and members of the Friends Society joined themselves. Until 1800, Dow and his wife, the former widow Mary Mallory, were the only settlers in the wilderness above Seneca Lake.

Then an old friend of the Dows moved to town and opened a tavern and store in two separate buildings, giving rise to a brief name for the early town — Culvers Settlement. Dow went on to hold elected and appointed offices for the next 40 years, including justice of the peace, supervisor and state assembly.

In 1805 an application was made to the next state legislature for a division of the township. Passage was procured the following year. It was formed from land that had been called Fredericktown in Steuben County. Reading borders Seneca Lake on the west and includes a portion of the village of Watkins Glen, which is the seat of Schuyler County.

Among the earliest of the town’s historic documents is a register of earmarks, beginning in 1806, in which pioneers notched the ears of their livestock to denote ownership. Rustic fences were unreliable at keeping livestock penned. Notable early pioneers names that are recognizable outside of Reading include Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, leaders in the Mormon religion, who lived in Reading as young men.

Early pioneers were grateful for the oak timber, fresh water, natural fruit, nuts, maple syrup, fish and game. Water power along running streams that flow to Seneca Lake powered pioneer grain and saw mills.

For early roads, Reading Township has the old Preemption line, surveyed to make the division of lands claimed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and New York State. Today a nearby resident makes it his responsibility to keep the iron historical marker for Preemption Road in Reading freshly painted.

Another early road called Lovers’ Lane, just a brief squiggle on the town map, was never surveyed and planned. A sawmill once existed there on a waterfall in the stream, and people hacked their own rough route to the mill rather than taking the long way around. With increased use, the half-mile shortcut from Lake Road to Irelandville became part of the town’s roads to be cared for.

Before the advent of the automobile, Reading had general stores, blacksmiths, schools every few miles, two churches, four post offices and eight school districts. Today, after all that bustle, only one post office and a combined Community Church remain. Two freight trains continue to service the town.

Schuyler County is one of the state’s smallest and least populated counties, and that’s just the way most Reading residents want it to remain. With its balance of agriculture and industry, golf courses, bed and breakfast inns, motels, restaurants, and four wineries with tastings and tours, it is a good place to visit and an even better place to live.

Or, as Barbara Bell, the town’s historian put it, “Humor and pathos, strength and weakness, wisdom and imprudence, all the human emotions played their parts in the drama of the history of Reading Township.” P

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.

Jump to Profile: