Superintendent of Highways Robert Anderson and the Town of Amherst

Laurie Mercer

One of America’s safest towns and cities also has one of the state’s largest highway departments. Just ask Robert “Bob” Anderson, who is responsible for 149 employees. (“It’s gotten smaller,” he said.) Amherst’s highway department has organized itself into six separate divisions, all empowered with objectives of their own.

The highway department’s equipment list (from Chevy Silverado to Stihl blowers) is 32 pages long with 23 items to a page.

Bob, a life-long native of Amherst who grew up in the north end of town, joined the department as a mechanic in 1979. During his lifetime, he said, “Our town has gone from being more of a rural community to almost a city environment. All streets are curbed. We have storm receivers throughout. We went from oiling and chipping roads to road repairs that are only blacktop or Nova Chip. Those are the types of treatments we do, while years ago, when I started, it was different.”

The Town of Amherst highway department’s operating budget of about $25 million certainly puts it in the top tier of departments statewide. The CHIPS portion in 2009 is $458,422. The paving budget alone is $1.3 million.

Bob’s current term ends in 2011, and he intends to keep going. He brought in Joe Speth, his deputy, from the outside because he valued Joe’s management experience. With employees, many long term, ranging in age from “about 28 to 58 years of age, this department represents a hard-working bunch.”

Bob bringing more women into jobs once reserved for men also marks his tenure.

“Women may have to be a little tougher,” he conceded. Currently the department has women assigned to metal pick up, paving and plowing, while the forestry division has taken on a woman to tend the town’s colorful flower beds. The first town paver ever to be on a maternity leave plans to return to work.

“We run the department with six general crew chiefs and a deputy superintendent,” Bob said. “The crew chiefs have all been here for 25 to 30 years on average.”

Joe Speth is deputy superintendent. Bob Hoock is crew chief for paving; Kent Richter is chief for forestry and patching; Dan Riley is chief for parks, roadside and island mowing; Gary Buffamanti is chief for signs, signals and street lighting: Ray Lytle is chief for storm water and mosquito control; and Jim Reynard is chief for parts, mechanics, plumbers and carpenters.

It’s a busy place. In addition to the routine snow removal, salting, mowing and paving on the town’s 321 center lane miles, crews do 40 miles of plowing and salting for the county. Many tasks are unusual for highway workers. For example, one crew dedicated to forestry has 27 parks and three golf courses, including the greens maintenance.

Another group makes thousands of signs and repairs the street lighting, including gas lights. In storm water and mosquito control, the Amherst crew drops treatments to eliminate mosquitoes in all of the town’s nearly 5,000 receivers. They even have their own lock shop that services the needs of the entire town, including law enforcement.

As for maintaining golf greens rather than playing on them, Bob said, “We have a parks division with 27 parks that range from everything including pocket parks donated by a local family [for example, Fetto Park] to elaborate set ups with baseball diamonds and soccer fields including Amherst Pepsi Center [with an ice rink] and the Clearfield Recreation Center. Plus we have more than 1,000 acres in the north that were recently designated forever wild.”

Golf courses are highly specialized green fields.

“In forestry we do all the maintenance, chemical applications, and mowing on three public golf courses. We have some fellows who have been involved in it for quite a few years.”

Golf courses require almost constant mowing on greens, fairways, tees, and some rough. Treatment for diseases, insects and the use of fertilizer is ongoing. Airification and top dressing in addition to drainage issues and irrigation are necessary to ensure accurate play. Labor intensive and dedicated to specialized jobs, 100 reel mowers are kept in the town’s highway inventory.

Highways, Mosquitos

If you are in a highway department that isn’t mandated to count mosquitoes, trap them, and send the bodies into the state to be reviewed for West Nile Virus, consider yourself lucky, because West Nile does turn up in Amherst.

“We have a mosquito division and are constantly spraying for the insects. We are very regimented in what we can do. We have to trap throughout the wet period.

“We also put RBI tablets in every storm drain where there is always some water in the bottom to kill the larvae. Probably $22,000 of our budget is devoted to that,” he said.

The fact that Erie County is the lead agency in the mosquito program helps get them a lot of product for spraying through a grant from the state.

“There are 20 areas in town that we have to keep an eye on with this concern. We trap. Then the mosquito people count how many we have. We send the insects to the state to check for West Nile and other viruses. There about 15 to 20 hits every year.” Do people freak out? “You bet they do,” Bob said. “And every year, you start all over again.”

“In the north end of town is more than 1,000 acres, much of it wetlands, that are declared forever wild,” he said. “It was established basically because a group of home owners wanted it. The town now owns the land through a grant from the state.”

It was actually the predominance of wetlands that discouraged early pioneers to the area. In time the land was drained, and people have been moving in ever since. However, Bob said today’s residents are somewhat different from ones in the recent past. They no longer want any new development. Town leaders, for instance, want older strip malls re-energized before any new malls are built. A slow economy and housing starts created only two new streets in Amherst last year.

“Take a look at the maps, and you see the nature of our town,” said Bob, whose work rooms are lined with maps that help keep track of chores including plowing, salting, metal pick up for recycling, as well as the locations of 34 traffic signal lights, 93 miles of storm drainage ditches, nearly 15,000 signs, and 9,800 street lighting units, including gas lights. They pick up 28,000 cubic yards of leaves and street sweeping more than 1,000 streets.

Locksmithing — Another Highway Niche

The Town of Amherst highway garage has 450 trucks alone — and that’s a lot of keys. Add to that number the village of Williamsville, the Amherst Police Department, and all of the Town of Amherst departments and one can see how keys could be confusing.

The solution in Amherst is the highway garage’s key shop, which basically assists all in-key and lock problems, including sophisticated units used by law enforcement.

Amherst Among America’s Top 10 Safest Cities

Bob described Amherst as a community almost entirely made up of residential homes with a large percentage of professional residents. According to a rating system, Amherst is almost always in the top 5 cities rated the safest, according to incidences of crime.

With Amherst’s almost completely flat geography, the highway department addresses drainage issues nearly every day. Although the town is located in a major snow belt with an estimated 120 in. of snowfall every year, it is the critical issue of drainage that occupies much of Bob’s time. Almost anybody can move snow and salt the streets, but not every department is equipped to handle the problem of collapsing storm sewers and receivers.

“One of our biggest concerns here is storm drainage; the town is flat. So drainage is a big issue as well as snow and ice removal,” he said, adding that some of his proudest moments are when residents driving in poor conditions tell him, “I couldn’t wait to get to Amherst!”

“It makes you feel good, it does,” he said.

Drainage is such a big deal that the highway department has a printed information sheet available right by the front door to the department’s offices titled, “Bubbler Complaints.” Turns out that the bubbler is a kind of safety valve for when the storm system is full. Residents should not be concerned when they see it bubbling during a storm. The homeowner’s responsibilities and the town’s are clearly defined on that sheet of paper.

More frequently Bob finds he has to answer residents’ questions in response to e-mails.

“I am not a blogger,” he insisted while explaining that on e-mail if you answer one question some people will reply with yet another one. The old days of picking up a phone to complain may be diminishing, but Amherst has two dispatchers and a solid line of communication to respond to complaints. Bob said the public’s confidence in the department is largely displayed by the absence of complaints.

He said that when he first became superintendent there were probably 300 receivers on the waiting list for service. There were even cartoon jokes in the local newspaper that the new street sign in Amherst was a barricade.

“We have at least 8,400 receivers in the town that have to be rebuilt because a combination of water, salt and trucks running over them broke them down. We probably repaired more than 400 receivers last year,” he said. In addition, two large Vacon trucks are in service blowing out the pipes and sucking out debris to keep things running smoothly.

The water from all those receivers goes to one of two places — Tonawanda and Ellicott Creek — and eventually over Niagara Falls.

“The old receivers were constructed with concrete brick, and they are crumbling. They only had about 300 pounds of compressive strength, and all the salt and water ruins them over the years. So we jackhammer out the concrete blocks and repair them using paving bricks. For any ground up construction in new locations we use precast receivers. With precast all you need to add is maybe two levels of elevation.”

If there were one thing Bob could outlaw in town it would be cul de sacs. Think of them not as curvy invitations to a lovely, Wisteria Lane-like suburban lifestyle, but rather meandering choke holds on his department’s productivity where the average snowplow run is already six hours long.

He said with a groan, “We have more than 300 cul de sacs to plow. Ask any superintendent, going straight up and down the road straight is a whole lot easier than moving around a cul de sac. We plow them the wrong way — backwards — because the largest amount of snow needs to get put in the island. Then you have to go back the other way.”

“Doing all that plowing, island maintenance and curbing take a beating because school buses hit the curbs and receivers. Garbage trucks drive over them causing excessive wear in that one small area.”

He also understands that more cul de sacs are inevitable because as land becomes scarce, “The remaining pieces are often odd-sized and cul de sacs fit.”

Starting Out as a Mechanic

Running a highway department of about 150 people, hundreds of expensive, specialized vehicles and hundreds of services, while answering to residents who get to vote you in or out of office every four years isn’t easy. But Bob Anderson certainly understands every step along the road from new hire to superintendent.

“I started in 1979 as a mechanic. I was looking for a steady job with a little bit of time off for my family. The position here actually paid almost half of what I was making. In the beginning I supplemented my income with part-time work as well.

“I married young. I’ve been married for 40 years.”

Bob’s wife, Lynne, is a services specialist with Liberty Mutual. Son Robert Jr. is a state trooper, and Andrew is a restaurant manager. Both boys had summer jobs in the highway department when they were growing up. The family now includes six grandchildren and a fifth-wheel RV, which takes them to lots of shooting clubs in the area for Bob to pursue his interest in competitive trap shooting, a sport he took up about 10 years ago.

“It’s just a nice relaxation,” he said.

His rise in the highway department included work in the trenches with 10 years as a mechanic and crew chief for one year. Then he calls it “being in the right place at the right time,” when the then superintendent resigned.

“It was election year and I was already running for it,” Bob recalled. “So Memorial Day weekend in 2003 I got appointed highway superintendent. I had a lot of support in the election from the community. All the highway department workers supported me 100 percent because they all knew that the work was not getting done like it should have been.

“I am not a politician,” he said, “But I am in a political office to some extent. I have to try and get along with the town board. They have a liaison who is here once every other week.”

Now with two elections under his belt, he calls the process “something of a popularity contest. I go door to door, but with 120,000 people, I didn’t get to every door. It’s important that residents know what we do here for the quality of life in our community.”

Increased community awareness of the department’s strengths was one reason that Bob began an open house two years ago. He said the children on the tour loved looking at the heavy equipment up close, but many of the adults were truly amazed at how many more things than just the roads were involved in the day-to-day operations on North Forest Road.

The department tends to 1,300 gas lights, which they are slowly replacing and 8,500 electric lights around the town. Bob said the residents complain that the old gas lights, while visually appealing, are not bright enough.

In traditional business terms the highway department is easily ranked as a medium size business. As the head of it, Bob spends more time working on the budget than out in the field with the workers, unless, of course, there’s a problem. He counts on his crew chiefs to be the first line of defense. For now, all the crew chiefs sit at a long table surrounded by bulletin boards full of magnetized moving parts to keep track of daily activities. But in the future this will be streamlined and digitized. The vision for the highway department demands a rebuild of all facilities and a better physical plan.

“These offices were probably built around 1960. The main building is from the 1940 era. Our offices used to be the engineering department. The main garage is now the lunch room. The electrical and phone systems are just continuously added onto. Pull off a tile and you’ll see the old phone system with wires everyplace.”

The main office has the distinct feel of a check-in desk at an alpine motel in the Adirondacks. There’s also a lot of traffic coming in and out due to it being the fueling facility for many town services including fire trucks, police cruisers, and vehicles from the senior center.

The people, many long-term employees, seem to enjoy their jobs. Bob gives the impression that he’s a friendly person but one who keeps his eyes on the goal. He also can probably be a tough but fair taskmaster, not necessarily one of the boys. Of course, Bob also brings his dog, Sunny, to work. As Robert Kennedy once pointed out, there are positive, image-building benefits to being seen with your dog. Staff in the office tends to stock their desks with dog treats.

Bob explained, “I started bringing him in on Fridays, and when he didn’t come, people started to ask where Sunny was.” The mellow dog, an ASPCA-rescue golden retriever and collie mix, is a welcome guest.

Heavy Lifting — Town Budgets

Rebuilding the highway department’s infrastructure would cost millions of dollars, and the budget in Amherst is already stretched. The hardest part of the job, he said, is budgets.

“The biggest reason for a major rehabilitation here is for our systems. There are no separate units; it’s very inefficient energy-wise. Every mechanical problem in the shop affects us. We need more AC than the shop. The truck storage area should be separated from the garage. We don’t have enough space to keep all the vehicles inside. We have 35 snow trucks alone. Plus about 250 high lifts, backhoes, and pavers.”

Although the department would like more, the town board often asks them to work with less. He said that this year has been extremely difficult. New equipment in 2009 received zero funding.

“I’m here a lot,” Bob said. I am getting my equipment and my men and women paid for. I’m fighting back. The supervisor wants me to cut 20 people. I want to see the same percentage of cuts in every other department in town including the police and recreation. Or, if they want me to cut 20 people, tell me the services they want cut. These moves would be by attrition [such as early retirement offers], not layoffs, so in a few years you would have less and less to work with.”

New paving projects, with blacktop, have already been reduced to doing about 12 miles a year now; they made a rebuilt tow truck out of old parts.

“Our department is unique in that it is huge and does so many different things. Sometimes the people are isolated from that. Who do they think is taking care of the tree that fell over at 2 a.m. or the traffic signal that isn’t working or the new locks on a police unit?

“I need almost 130 people just to go snow plowing, including sidewalks, mechanics, and dispatch. I have 35 plow routes, each of which takes about six hours to plow. Then we have six high lift routes for municipal parking lots, library, police and the senior center. And that’s just plowing. We also use about 21,000 tons of salt on our roads.”

Presenting to the Town Board

In mid-summer, Bob, for first time, did a major Power Point presentation to the town board outlining and illustrating the breadth of goods and services the highway department provides for the community. The forestry division is just one part of that scope. Amherst, like many other Buffalo suburbs, is defined by its trees. So the devastating 2006 ice storm, called the October Surprise, resulted in earmarking more than 11,000 trees for trimming or removal. Bob said they are still in a replanting phase resulting from his worst day on the job.

“I knew that how we handled the storm meant everything in defining who I was as a highway superintendent,” he said. “We were going to be judged by how well we did in that storm. We actually had about a foot of snow, which was no big deal, but it was wet, leaves were still on the trees, and then it all turned to ice, and the trees started coming down on power lines, filling the streets. It became pretty bad in a hurry.

“At the start I said we are going to need a couple hundred trucks, and they didn’t believe me. It was just gut instinct. I didn’t even realize how accurate I was. We ended up using 500 trucks at the peak.”

Amherst was without power for a week.

“The first thing I decided was to put snowplows on our trucks and open up every street for emergencies. You literally couldn’t see across the street to your neighbor’s house. It was that bad. As the drivers started coming back in we kept asking what’s going on? We couldn’t get our arms around the event. It was unprecedented. Even with mutual aid from other towns, I could tell we couldn’t do it alone. Initially we hired an outside contractor to help quickly.”

Bob said it took nearly five months to clear the town of the 1 million cubic yards of debris caused by the violent storm.

Is there a silver lining in this devastating event?

“First of all, people came together, so that was good. Our workers did a helluva job. Workers came here even though their families were home without power knowing that their jobs were to help you and me.

“The storm also broadened everybody’s horizon,” he added. “Some areas that were hit real hard were planted in the 1920s and 1930s with silver maples, which we now find out is considered a junk tree. Silver maple is also a single generation tree. They last about 60 years, and then they start falling apart and die.

“I created a tree committee during the storm to determine what we should be looking for in trees. Ten years ago places like Ransom Oaks were planted almost entirely to ash trees, and now we find out about the ash borer, which hasn’t gotten here — yet. Now we have 14 varieties that we plant. People in town especially love the flowering crabapples.”

This past spring the department was responsible for planting 1,000 trees, as well as 640 more from two nurseries, and Re-Tree of Western N.Y. donated and planted an additional 80 trees. Although they are town trees, the highway department encourages residents to take care of them. Each new tree comes with a water bag so that rooting quickly takes place. The spirit of helpfulness is what makes it a great town.

About the Town of Amherst

Like so many towns in America, Amherst is named for someone who never set foot there. Amherst, the largest and most populous suburb of Buffalo, is named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a British army officer of the colonial period.

For early pioneers, things got started here around 1798 when the Holland Land Company acquired most of the land in Western New York. Land agents Benjamin Ellicott and John Thompson purchased what would become Amherst for about $2 per acre. John Ellicott was sent to survey the land so that an accurate map could be used to sell the land to settlers.

Ellicott also began planning roads in Western New York. At that time, Indian trails like the “Great Iroquois Trail,” which crossed the state from Albany to Lake Erie, represented an early road. Ellicott hired men to improve the trail from Batavia to Buffalo. First called Buffalo Road, the same track running through Amherst is now called Main Street.

Another major road surveyed by Ellicott is Transit Road — a major thoroughfare today and named for the surveying instrument.

The land was often wet, and when roads passed over swampy areas, logs were laid close together to make a corduroy road. In Amherst, part of Hopkins Road, where it crossed the Great Baehre Swamp, was originally a corduroy road. Building roads was slow going because nobody wanted to pay for them. Laying down planks of wood for a better surface led to plank roads.

To help pay for improvements to the Buffalo Road, a toll booth was built on Main Street near the Getzville Road in the 1830s and operated until 1899.

Taverns sprang up because the Holland Land Company offered several lots, about 10 miles apart, along the Buffalo Road to “Any proper man who would build and keep open taverns.” Taverns offered food and shelter to pioneers in the wilderness. The first small log house, believed to be the first house in Erie County, was built by John Thompson in Amherst in 1799.

The waterfalls on Ellicott Creek (then called Eleven Mile Creek) gave rise to Williamsville, Amherst’s largest settlement where the waterfalls now draw tourists to the Williamsville Water Mill. With water power, wood became lumber and wheat became flour; mills were the key to survival. It was an early miller, Jonas Williams, who lent his name to the settlement first called Williams Mills.

It’s hard to imagine as one drives around Amherst that at one point as many as 6,000 soldiers occupied the ground. During the War of 1812, American troops were stationed in Williamsville between Garrison Road and Ellicott Creek. The field hospital and log barracks that lined Garrison Road received both American soldiers and British prisoners of war. There’s a small cemetery on Aero Drive between Wehrie and Youngs Road that was used to bury the dead.

The area is a hotbed of early history. Imagine General Winfield Scott using the Evans House as his headquarters in the Spring of 1813. His entire army of 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers was stationed in Williamsville.

When the British burned Buffalo, many fled for Williamsville and nearby Harris Hill.

Following the War of 1812, Williamsville, the heart of Amherst, had mills, stores, and a tavern. Dr. David S. Conkey, arriving in 1807, became the first physician. Settlers had to survive the cold summer of 1816, known as the summerless summer when snows fell in late May and there were killing frosts through July.

The State of New York officially created Amherst on April 10, 1818. It was named for Sir Jeffrey Amherst, an English Lord who was commander-in-chief of the British troops in America 1758 to 1763, before the American Revolution. King George III’s gift to Amherst was 20,000 acres in New York, but Amherst never came to see them.

Timothy S. Hopkins, the first supervisor, was elected in 1819 when about 768 people lived in the town. As hamlets developed in town, a number of them were named for the then postmaster. For example, Snyder was named Synderville as Michael Snyder was the first postmaster in his store at the corner of Harlim Road and Main Street. Eggertsville, likewise, was named for Christian Eggert, the first postmaster of the settlement. Getzville was named for Joseph Getz, another postmaster.

In the town’s earliest history books, East Amherst was called Transit Station, and Millersport was Mill Port because it was located along an important early waterway along Tonawanda Creek.

When the Erie Canal opened across the state in 1825, it passed along the northern edge of Amherst. Amherst farmers sent their crops to Buffalo while settlers found the canal an easier immigration route in this far flung land.

Many newcomers were German and spoke their native tongue at home well into the 1800s. Mennonites, a German-speaking group, lived in the area and worshipped in a limestone building built in 1834 with limestone from the nearby Fogelsonger quarry. The Mennonite Meeting House is still standing today.

Too much water in town might be a problem today, but it was Ellicott Creek that furnished needed water power and established the center of commercial activity. Back then there were grist mills, saw mills, a tannery and boot and shoe factory, carding works, a bedstead factory, paper mill, breweries, cabinet makers, a slaughter house, taverns, plenty of saloons, carding works, and two forges as well as other businesses.

The first issue of the Amherst Bee appeared on March 27, 1879, and the community newspaper is still being published.

Early public transportation was provided by stagecoaches, which had a regular schedule between Batavia and Buffalo by 1830. In 1854 the single track of the new Canandaigua-Niagara Falls Railroad opened with a station in Getzville. Known locally as the “Peanut Line,” the train was later operated by New York Central until the late 1950s when its whistle was heard in Amherst for the very last time.

As early as 1920 Amherst’s farmland was being sold for subdivision. A new style of house, called a bungalow, became very popular here. An electric trolley gave people an easy ride to work. By 1930 the population was a little more than 16,000.

The completion of the University of Buffalo campus in Amherst, along with construction of major access roads such as the I-290 (Youngman Expressway) and the I-990 (Lockport Expressway) makes is easier for commuters to hold above average jobs and live in what many surveys have ranked as one of the top 5 safest towns in the country.

Today, approximately 120,000 people call Amherst their home. P

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