Superintendent of Highways Bradley A. Rowles and the Town of Tonawanda

Laurie Mercer

Upbeat, attentive and concerned, that’s Bradley A. Rowles, superintendent of highways of the town of Tonawanda, who says it’s an honor to serve. Tonawanda boasts great roads, efficient sanitation and is home to 31,000 trees, which have made the town a long-time recipient of national Tree City awards. Brad is not only the forester, but also is the garbage guy, the go-to point person on recycling, the manager of three abandoned cemeteries and, of course, superintendent of the roads.

Brad’s forestry department tends to all 31,000 municipal trees, including pruning and maintenance, which often requires drilling through sidewalks to cut roots that have interfered with walkways. Dead trees are removed when necessary. Tonawanda also has been aggressive about replanting with any one of 33 different varieties of trees, some of which are berry-bearing to provide food for the birds.

“Some are berry bearing trees for birds,” Brad said. “Those berries never hit the ground. We don’t have to worry about that.”

The department also added American Elm to the lineup, which is resistant to Dutch elm disease. “American Elm,” Brad said approvingly as if he were describing a person, “We really like them.”

“Most of the town of Tonawanda is densely populated with people and trees,” said Brad. “They may be municipal trees, but many property owners think of the trees as their own.” Streets are swept every week. Brad estimates that they collect 2,000 tons of leaves each year with a goal of picking all of them up before the first snow.

Invasion of the Gypsies

Recently Brad’s crew had to aggressively treat trees seriously infested with gypsy moth on two different streets. Public education took place with the door-to-door distribution of the town-issued, “Gypsy Moth Informational Pamphlet.”

Brad described the program: “We used Tanglefoot early on to go after them. We were really able to concentrate on two streets where the damage was severe. We made up these little traps, which are organic and draw moths from a half mile away. Soapy water was actually the biggest deterrent.”

Winter wasn’t any easier on the pests either as Brad’s forestry crew “got after the eggs sacks in the tree.” He said both streets showed marked improvement this spring.

Brad said local citizens got involved and shared what they learned from the Internet about gypsy moths. He said they come outside to chat when the crew is working on the trees.

Because of its heavy investment in tree maintenance, nearly 500 trees annually are recovered and removed to become reduced to fire wood and chips. He said, “One of the focuses this year has been to get out and prune. There’s lots of suckers out there.”

Brad also would like to become more proactive about cutting roots that have caused sidewalks to buckle. He explained, “The technology now allows us to use a slab jack that raises the slab up and puts the slab back.”

He said the activity actually spurs growth in the trees. Right now the work is contracted out, but he said he is thinking about buying a slab jack for the department.

The fascination with trees is not necessarily universal, but Brad does get his fair share of calls about trees.

“I get the calls when people get upset,” he said. “Our program calls for going down each street addressing each tree every three years. So this year may be your street’s turn and not mine. People are emotionally attached to the trees.”

Lots of Responsibility, Lots of People

Tonawanda has 335.58 total lane miles of town-owned roads. In addition, they are responsible for removing snow and ice from almost 32 miles of Erie County roads. Of the total operating budget of $10,250,228, $299,208 is the town’s CHIPS allocation. More than $6,291,456 of the budget goes to personnel services.

With a crew of 116 full-time employees to back him up, Brad is essentially running a medium-size business. All repairs and maintenance are done in-house including custom painting older vehicles so that the fleet looks pretty much like new. Fabricating metal fencing, making signs, creating metal light poles for the town and providing free truckloads of dry firewood to residents each year are just a few of the not-business-as-usual tasks for the highway crew.

The highway garage also has a place to get free leaves mixed with horse manure donated by the ASPCA.

The job description in Tonawanda is all about roads, forestry and sanitation. Most of the activity is housed in an almost brand-new, 13-acre property with attractive block office space, storage barn for vehicles, a paint shop, two salt sheds, a Quonset hut and two cold storage buildings. The salt storage sheds house about 2,500 tons of salt.

The hydraulic lifts and bays match up with those in any commercial operation. The department even has an in-house tire shop. There are replacements parts for every vehicle as well as a sign shop and electrical and carpentry shops. A disaster-preparedness room houses everything from chainsaws to generators for any emergency, including road barricades and temporary stop signs.

Disasters have, unfortunately, been part of the job.

Burned to the Ground

Brad’s desk faces a wall full of horrifying color photographs that show the previous highway garage in flames and reduced to stench and rubble. “July 13, 1995” is all it says on the brass plaque beneath the picture. The photos tell the tale of mass destruction in a blaze so hot the keys to the equipment melted into a clump of useless metal.

The highway department had been housed in a building that was once a factory. The day of the fire, highway workers working on the windows had failed to notice that the sparks caused by a welder started a fire that ultimately became catastrophic after the employees went home.

Brad said that after the fire, they were fortunate to be able to rent a warehouse near the location, but they couldn’t do equipment repairs there, just storage. Offices were moved into trailers. Replacing the highway department premises took about a year and a half.

The gleaming new modern facility is custom made for the department with firewalls and sophisticated surveillance systems.

There’s lots of computer equipment in the offices, large meeting rooms designed for instruction, attractive break rooms for lunch, sufficient parking and high-tech security fencing the entire perimeter of the property. Outside security guards have been updated to electronic video systems and gates that are automatically controlled from inside.

Thanks to one employee’s computer programming skills there is a page on the computer that tells where everybody is working each and every day; Tonawanda Highway Department at a glance.

Five years ago the department held an open house for the new building and the event has become an annual tradition in the community. This year more than 700 people showed up including employees and their families. For ongoing communication they also have a Web site: www.tonawanda.ny.us/highway.

Keeping Things Looking Brand New

Brad estimates the department owns about $10 million in equipment. The department’s capital improvement plan allows them to plan ahead for seven years. This year they purchased two new bucket loaders, one with a snowplow attachment.

The department’s preventive maintenance schedule is based on engine hours. Each vehicle is serviced every 250 engine hours. Brad said thanks to the schedule, they have only had to replace one engine since they adopted the system in 1995.

“We try to keep a piece of equipment with its own operator so they take pride in how it runs,” he said. “Because we take such good care of what we own, we can surplus equipment rather than sell it at auctions.”

For example, the town of Tonawanda just put out for bid a Case 821 wheel loader to buy a new one.

“When the money comes back in from the sale it is transferred into the new equipment fund,” Brad said.

Brad said that informal transfers of equipment help control costs.

“We’ve been able to transfer equipment from one town to another when it’s useful. There may be a salter body we need, and we loan them something else. Largely through our relationships with other groups, such as fire departments, we’ve saved the town lots of money.”

The Highway Department, for example, has repaved a fire department parking lot.

“We have the Ken-Ton and Sweet Home School Districts, and an agreement through the board was reached with the schools. The school took our specs for a garbage truck and bought the same piece of equipment. They can rent a spare truck from us if needed, and we do the repairs on their truck. Our guys are really good at heavy equipment maintenance and repairs. We’ve also entered into agreements with the village of Kenmore on paving projects.”

Thanks to an ongoing program, all heavy machinery is painted bright yellow and looks a lot newer than it is in some cases. One truck even has a sign indicating its real age (manufactured in 1975).

Home Town Superintendent Thanks to a Blizzard

Brad, who joined the department as a laborer in 1978, became highway superintendent in 2003. He grew up in Tonawanda and his mother still lives in the house he grew up in.

Brad and his wife Pat, who has worked for 27 years at a hospital, are new empty nesters and have just moved into a smaller house that they helped renovate themselves. Son Bradley, newly engaged, is a teacher while daughter Emily is a paramedic and volunteer firefighter. Brad’s free time activities include riding his Harley, not taking his bad golfing seriously and enjoying the quiet solitude of his non-working, 26-acre farm.

“Tonawanda really got growing in the 1950s when it changed from a farming community into a residential one. When people say ‘the town’ they mean Tonawanda. They just take that for granted. The people moved here, and they stayed,” Brad said.

When asked if he thought he’d ever become superintendent, Brad was quick to say, “No.”

Brad studied civil technology in college, got a degree and went to work for an engineering firm in Buffalo. When the blizzard of 1977 struck the city creating 20-foot-high snowdrifts, he volunteered to help clear it out. He ended up digging out fire hydrants with a shovel. Later when he ran into the deputy superintendent who remembered him, Brad was offered a job.

“So if it weren’t for that blizzard I never would have turned up in this job,” he said. In his 30 years in the department he has noticed a marked shift towards a more professional better-paid work force.

“When I was first hired people were leaving these jobs to go to places like General Motors. Now I’d say the reverse is true. Working here is a very desirable position. We do quality work. Years ago, we had equipment that was failing, but today, when you tour our barns, you’ll find the finest equipment around. Even though you work long hours, it’s good work,” he said. “Because you are helping people. Even in summer it’s a six-day week because something is always going on. Everything we do in town is for the kids including T-ball and hockey in the parks Saturday afternoons.”

Communicating with the Town

The Tonawanda Highway Department scans in every compliment and every complaint it receives. The compliments are posted on the department’s bulletin board.

For example, Prescilla Pfenninger wrote, “You are wonderful. You keep us apprised of all work being done or changes in procedures. I moved from another town, and I can tell you that no such person as yourself is in charge there.”

Brad addresses all complaints personally. They can include everything from tree roots causing plumbing damage to emptied garbage totes that blow back into the curb, and other types of domestic matters.

“One of the reasons we get lots of mail is that we are an older, developed town with 27,000 homes where we pick up the refuse every week. So the people feel they know us. I can’t afford to get grouchy with people,” Brad said. “I’ve got the best job there is.”

What is Brad’s assessment of customer service? “Make one person happy and they will thank you. Make one person mad and they never forget it. But if you need to talk to someone about some issue all you have to do is to come to a town board meeting. All the department heads are there. We are accessible.”

Recycling in Tonawanda, That’s No Bull

The Tonawanda Highway Department entered into recycling in 1991, even inventing its own logo mascot of a bull to illustrate “Recycla-Bull Materials.” Each spring highway workers go door-to-door with a pamphlet about what is and what is not recyclable.

Brad said, “There are not many changes, depending on what is marketable. The recycling facility can only take what is marketable. Workers have stickers to mark items that could not be picked up such as pesticides. What we do here is try to make it as easy as possible with recycling bins and public education. We try not to put a burden on people.”

A grant writer has helped secure substantial grants for the activity.

The town of Tonawanda has a contract with Allied Waste Services, which operates a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in the town. The town receives $10 a ton for recyclable materials that the town delivers. Additionally, the town has a host community agreement with Allied where the town receives $0.75/ton for each ton of material processed in the MRF. Brad explained, “We also produce 27,000 tons of garbage that gets burned for energy. We are fortunate to have Covana Waste Energy, which makes steam and electricity, nearby. We pay $41 a ton for disposal, but we are not putting it in a landfill so it’s a win/win situation for us.”

By renegotiating the garbage and landfill contracts, he said the town has saved more than $1.2 million. In addition, Brad estimates that the dump trucks tip about 100,000 times each year. He said, “We try to make the trucks last 10 years, and then we use them for parts.”

The Roads Not Taken

Brad’s best day on the job was also his worst. In 2006 Tonawanda was the epicenter of a storm called the October Surprise, and the surprise the storm brought was not a pleasant one. It left more than 500,000 tons of debris in the streets and nearly the entire town was without power for more than a week.

“I think we got tougher from the ice storm,” said Brad. “I think it’s important in any career to learn from the workers and superintendents who are experienced. In the blizzards of 1977 and 1985 we learned so much. With storms like that there is so much going on. We need to thank the people who were mentors for us.”

Brad said the town was fortunate to already have snowplows in place when the October Surprise hit, because it was early for the plows to be ready.

He said, “The forecast was way off. Around 4:00 in the afternoon we sent our salters out, but you could see it was getting worse and worse. By 7:00 all of the crew started coming in and the salters could no longer get down the roads because of branches falling from the trees.”

The department’s goal became “keeping one lane open all night” for the sake of public safety. Brad and the others resolved to clean the streets beginning with the schools first and working out from there. Even though schools were closed due to the storm, they reasoned that the kids would need to be back in school as soon as power was restored.

“During that storm we had 15 key people on it with more than 407 years of combined experience,” he said. “We needed to put everybody in town on this job and ended up with 400 people here including the parks department, water resources and police.” Initially they also hired some outside help in the form of “storm chasers.”

Because of both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario lake effects, snowfall in Tonawanda averages about 100 inches per year. Brad said the town uses well over 9,000 tons of salt each year.

“We keep track every time we use salt. I do use Magic treated salt for certain temperatures. Treated salt really works for us. We’ve had great success with it. We’ve tried different products. There is an alcohol-based product that works really well, but everything has a consequence and a cost.”

With saddle tanks on the sides of salters, the switches inside of the truck are governed by the driver according to temperature. The town’s 16 plow routes take about 4.5 hours each.

Brad said that they have used sand when there were shortages of salt. A cave-in of the salt mine in Retsof was once such time. Brad actually remembers feeling the ground shake slightly, even though the mine is more than 50 miles away.

“Using sand,” he said, “Broke a lot of springs. Spring clean up was worse in the receivers [drains]. It wasn’t good. We’ll do anything not to use sand, but if it has to happen we always put public safety first.”

Some of Brad’s accomplishments since becoming superintendent include widening Woodstock Avenue, removing the defunct railroad tracks and flattening the intersection of Harrison Road and Center Avenue, revamping the leaf collection procedure and building a new salt shed.

Controlling Costs and Jobs Filled with Pride

As the costs for fuel and personnel keep rising, Brad and his office people control costs through changes. For example, they have re-set the parameters on Cat diesel vehicles to save fuel. The temperature in the office has been lowered. All couplers on the trucks are the same so that equipment can easily be shared.

For paving projects, Brad is trying new technology such as Novachip which is half as thick a surface which means you can do more linear feet.

“Pride,” Brad said, “Is the biggest part of your job as superintendent. “When you have pride in your job you are going to do your best. Many times an employee will even go back to the street they worked on after the job is done to see how it looks.

“That’s what pride is all about.”

About the Town of Tonawanda

Tonawanda, in the northwest corner of Erie County, is bounded on the north by the river and county of Niagara, on the east by Amherst, on the south by Buffalo and on the west by the Niagara River. In size it’s about 13,000 acres.

Native Americans, the Neuter and Erie Indians, were the only inhabitants until 1679 with the arrival of LaSalle and his companions, including French missionaries. Later the Iroquois Confederacy eliminated these early tribes, but the Iroquois would prove no match for LaSalle’s army.

The English fought the French and eventually won. Then came the American Revolution and the loss of control of the Niagara Frontier by the British who abandoned Fort Niagara in 1796.

In 1800 Joseph Ellicott was appointed a resident land agent for the Holland Land Company and settlers began to buy farmland in what would become the town of Tonawanda. The first township was organized in 1801.

Military Road, which is in heavy use every day, was already on the maps as a straight line though the woods and an essential means of communication and commerce between the villages of Buffalo and Black Rock and Fort Niagara — making it the shortest route to the military post. War was in the air. Around 1811 a blockhouse had been constructed in Tonawanda at the mouth of Tonawanda Creek for defense.

During the War of 1812 both villages of Buffalo and Tonawanda, including the blockhouse occupied by 16 soldiers, burned and the frontier communities were abandoned. By the spring of 1814, Albany granted money and military protection and settlements began again with renewed vigor, but life here was still difficult. Historians record that, in 1817, famine was so bitter that newly formed wheat kernels were harvested, cooked, and eaten.

The early growth of the area was largely due to the construction of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825. The canal, an engineering miracle of its day, first brought workers, then settlers, and finally travelers who continue to enjoy the canal for recreational purposes today, though it is now called the Barge Canal.

Brightly painted packet boats brought people and goods from as far away as Albany and Europe. The Erie Canal’s 200-ton freight barges were drawn by mule teams which hauled along the path of Tonawanda Creek — the only natural waterway used for any distance on the old Erie Canal.

Because of its location and deep-water port, Tonawanda became an important shipping center by the 1840s. Great Lakes cargo boats would transfer lumber from Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, to canal boats and then they would ship the trade goods to the nation’s eastern coastal cities.

By 1836 the New York State Legislature organized the town of Tonawanda, comprised of the present day town of Tonawanda, Grand Island and the city of Tonawanda. Thoughts of roads were uppermost in their intentions. Among the first elected officials in 1837 were two gentlemen who were appointed commissioners of highways. In 1899 they added the village of Kenmore within the town.

That year also saw the arrival of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad, the first steam railway in western New York. By 1865 Tonawanda remained a commercial lumber center.

Eventually cider mills, vinegar manufacturing, yeast works, machine shops, foundries, boat builders, blacksmiths, wagon shops, engine and boiler manufacturers, flour mills and a brewery, which lasted 81 years, made this a very lively and prosperous town.

By 1890 Tonawanda was the busiest lumber port in the nation, even surpassing Chicago. By that time there also were 16 different railroad companies in operation. On any given day, train spotters could watch more than 100 trains coming through.

Life was good. In 1909 a letter from a resident beer maker said, “The location here is so marvelous that probably there is no place that surpasses this view. … The river is full of freight and pleasure steamers. Life everywhere. Good, warm weather increases the sale of beer.”

A turn-of-the-century developer named Louis Phillip Adolph Eberhardt could be called the daddy of Tonawanda. In 1888 Eberhardt began to build a dream of a clean, quiet community of upscale homes on tree-lined streets where residents would enjoy life away from the grime and noise of Buffalo. By buying up farmland and selling it for housing, Eberhardt helped build the community we see today.

Located just minutes from downtown Buffalo, Tonawanda is a completely developed, tree-lined friendly town and is much loved by its residents.

Among its most popular attractions are the Paddock Golf Dome, two golf courses, an Aquatic & Fitness Center, a local history museum, an annual garden walk and other special events. P

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