Superintendent of Highways Ed Lynch and the Town of Smithtown Highway Department

Jim Van Horn

Smithtown, Long Island, NY, was founded in 1665 by Richard Smythe, an English immigrant from Yorkshire, his wife Sarah and their family, who settled on the banks of the Nissequogue River on the North Shore of Long Island.

Smythe took possession of the land that now comprises Smithtown after lengthy claims arguments with the English (and even Dutch) authorities who controlled the colonies. When these were resolved, according to local accounts, he still had to settle with the Nissequogue Indians who lived there. He made an agreement with their leader, Nesconset, that he could have as much land as he could circumnavigate in one day while riding on the back of a bull. So, on June 21, 1665, the longest day of the year, Smythe set out at dawn on the back of his bull “Whisper.” Blazing trees with an ax to mark his trail as he went, Smythe traveled some 50 miles, forming the original Smythe Town, now Smithtown.

While there may be an element of “bull” to this account, it is still the most popular version of the founding of Smithtown and a statue of a bull marks the intersection of two main roads in the town.

The Town of Smithtown was officially given town status after the American Revolution by the State of New York. It now comprises not only Smythe’s original community but several other locales as well: Commack, Hauppauge, Head of the Harbor, Kings Park, Nissequogue, and Saint James.

Originally tiny hamlets, several are now major communities. There are numerous recreational areas such as parks and nature conservancies. Old houses, a number of them formerly belonging to members of the Smith family, abound. Long Island Sound, with its numerous recreational opportunities, abuts on the north, while the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean beckon just a few miles south.

Long Island itself has made numerous contributions to the country in terms of entertainment (Billy Joel, Billy Crystal, Howard Stern and Rosie O’Donnell all hail from the Island); firsts and biggest (first test-tube twins; first golf club, at Shinnecock Hills; largest great white shark, at 3,450 lb., caught with rod and reel); transportation wonders (the Long Island Expressway, the Long Island Railroad), and scenes (The Hamptons). The speech of the Island has its own particular patter — for example, natives have been known to pronounce one of the communities in the Town of Smithtown, Ronkonkoma, as “rahn-KAH-kar-mer.”

For some 250 years after its founding, Smithtown prospered but still remained a relatively sleepy rural and village township; roads were important but not as much as today. The post-World War II era changed all that, with its rapid suburban expansion, which reached as far as Eastern Long Island and crested in the 1970s. With this growth in homes and businesses came more roads to serve them. Now, the Town of Smithtown is home to some 135,000, about the same as a small city. Located in the middle of Long Island, it’s one of 10 towns in Suffolk County, NY. An hour away from New York City (with a minimum of traffic) Smithtown is an “exurban” community — a self-contained unit beyond the first circle of suburbs. Therefore, its economy and life are not necessarily tied to New York City’s.

Smithtown could be called a fairly affluent community, (with correspondingly high taxes), but like most areas near New York City, it’s also a fairly high-cost area. Just about all the land that can be developed has been, so there are very few growth issues. From a highway and road standpoint the town is in the “second round,” where maintenance and rebuilding of existing pavement are of prime importance.

Edmund F. “Ed” Lynch is superintendent of highways for the Town of Smithtown Highway Department. Now in his first term of office — he was elected in 2002 — Lynch came from the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, where he was Federal Construction Project Coordinator. Before that he worked in heavy, highway and general construction in the Long Island area, where he got his “on the road” training. He thus approaches his job from the points of view of both the contractor and the contracting official.

According to its mission statement, the Smithtown Highway Department is responsible for the maintenance and improvement of the town’s public road infrastructure, including not only roads but drain recharge basins, curbs, sidewalks, trees and grass. The parks, water and sewer and marine facilities are handled by other town departments. (Suffolk County is in charge of county-designated highways, while the state maintains the state and federal highways that pass through the town such as the Sagtikos and Northern Parkways and the Long Island Expressway.) Lynch and his department have 465 miles of roads with more than 1,000 lane-miles. They are almost entirely asphalt, with almost no concrete or dirt roads. Lynch’s department has more than 100 pieces of off-highway equipment and almost an equal number of trucks, ranging from pickup to six and 10-wheelers to tractor-trailers, most with dump bodies.

As a lifelong resident of the area and one who observes it from several points of view, Ed Lynch has his own characterization of Smithtown and the job of its highway department.

“This is a working community. By that I mean most people get up and go to work every day. And they expect the roads and streets to be ready for them, even in winter.” While Long Island gets nowhere near as much snow as areas further upstate, in the past few years it has been hit particularly hard by severe storms that traveled up the East Coast. But no matter what, “Residents want the roads to be plowed when they go to work and their children go to school.”

To that end he can deploy as many as 90 plow trucks, most with salt/sand spreaders.

“We also can call in as many as 50 other pieces of equipment belonging to private contractors,” Lynch said.

With the exception of the record-setting President’s Day weekend storm, his crew pretty much met their goals this past winter.

This need for quick and efficient snow removal carries to the rest of the year and can be described as the need for clean streets.

1. Sweeping. “Our objective is sweep every street in the town, even those with no curbs — and there are lots of those — once every five weeks.

2. Leaf and brush removal. The town distributes bags, free of charge, to residents and has a massive leaf and brush cleanup in the spring, when just about all other road work is suspended. There’s also leaf collection in the fall.

3. Smooth streets, free of potholes. “We want to resurface 7 to 8 percent of all our roads and streets each year. Since in previous years our resurfacing rate was less than 5 percent we have to both increase our productivity and play catchup.”

Since he took office, the department has finished, “in-house,” a major reconstruction of Cambon Avenue, is currently working on Southern Boulevard, and has Croft Lane on the drawing board; all are major town arteries. Outside engineering work on these and other projects is done by the town’s engineering firm, Cashin Associates P.C., of Hauppauge.

The department budget is $15 million, including a CHIPS allocation of $500,000. Currently Ed has $2-million budgeted for capital improvement projects and $800,000 for new equipment purchases. But Ed allows it’s a constant process — one he doesn’t exactly relish — to battle for adequate funding.

Because trucks are a vital part of his operation — unlike off-highway equipment, they are usually in use every working day for almost eight hours — one of Ed’s major objectives is to upgrade the fleet.

“Over 50 percent of our trucks are more than 10 years old, and we need to replace and upgrade them,” he said. (He exempts the department’s oldest vehicles Ford Model T and Model A cars and trucks, which are maintained and kept on hand for parades and historical displays.) Ed adds that newer trucks are not only more productive but require less maintenance and are not as prone to sudden breakdown when least needed, such as during a snowstorm.

He’s also trying to consolidate the number of sweeper brands to two. Because of its extensive clean streets program — the town has 14 sweepers — he replaces one a year.

Lynch said that fortunately that he has a tradition of a strong highway department to back him up. He noted that when the major growth in the town started taking place, the department was already well established, so there wasn’t the need to “come from behind” when the need grew for increased road and street maintenance.

One of the hallmarks of Smithtown’s highway department is its self-sufficiency, of using as many of its own resources as possible. For example: Ed’s department does all its own trenching and drainage work, putting in leaching pools where needed to relieve puddling, plus excavation for street resurfacing project. Bank run material excavated for this work goes through the department’s Extec portable screening plant. Lynch explained, “We screen the material to separate topsoil, sand and stone.”

The North Shore of Long Island’s geology is basically a dumping ground, left by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago, of gravel, sand and some clay. It’s a great raw material for screening.

“We use the topsoil for landscaping, the sand for snow and ice control in winter, and the stone for bedding in pipelaying or drainage control projects.

“As a result, we haven’t had to buy even a ton of sand for winter use.”

In winter, crews use straight salt, a 50/50 mixture of salt and screened sand, or straight sand, depending on conditions. When necessary, Smithtown can call in a crushing plant to provide crushed rock.

Smithtown makes just about all of its own sand/salt spreader attachments from plans the department developed. Town maintenance people welded together the salt/sand container bodies and attached spreading mechanisms. Each attachment is designed to fit a particular truck in the town fleet, and each attachment and its truck have the same number, so when drivers and operators scramble during a snowstorm, there’s no time lost finding the correct attachment.

The department’s carpentry shop makes such items as concrete forms, and barricades for traffic control and for use in parades. There also is a stack of mailbox posts.

“That’s to replace mailboxes knocked down during snow plowing operations,” Lynch said. “We’ll replace, free, any mailbox we knock down with a standard design cross-post set in the ground and a postal-service-approved black steel mailbox.”

The maintenance operation includes a full shop, capable of major component repairs; an industrial grade lubrication facility, and a spray paint booth. The department does 90 percent of its own repairs and tire changes and just about all of its own painting and repainting of equipment.

Maintenance follows guidelines set down by manufacturers and developed by the department.

Even the highway department itself is sited on a former landfill, making efficient use of land that would have been questionable for residential development.

The site includes the offices, which front a major town highway, the Smithtown Bypass (Route 347); the shop, the yard for storage of equipment and items such as concrete barrier blocks and the salt storage sheds. A separate yard in back is used for storage of materials such as screened topsoil, sand and stone, plus processed mulch (the town offers free mulch to residents who pick it up), as well as old pavement and other materials.

When it comes to managing the department, Ed definitely has all the appearances of a take-charge person. But a valuable by-product of his construction experience, he said, is “skill in working with people.” He needs it; for starters, he has 150 employees, all full-time. Key personnel include deputy superintendent Mitch Crowley and personnel secretary Grace Patone. Normal work hours are 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

But the people skills go beyond just town employees. He cites one of the major differences between being an elected highway superintendent and supervising construction work for a contractor: “Before I was dealing with highway professionals; now I deal with people who are probably professionals in their own fields but are not that knowledgeable about highway construction and maintenance. Now a major part of my job is education and explanation.”

Ed also has ample opportunities to put his people skills to work with another sector — town residents, his constituents. He describes his communications with them as, essentially, on their part, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” He added, “I don’t need to call them, they call here.”

This includes dealing with local media, with whom he sometimes has disagreements. Media relations “is not one of my favorite parts of the job,” he admitted.

Ed grew up in next-door Nassau County, has lived in the Smithtown area for 27 years and is one of the area’s big boosters.

“This is a nice place to live, a high quality area,” he said, “with lots of outdoor activities.”

He and his wife Linda have three children: Eddie, 29; Peter 27, and Katie, 22. “One of our proudest moments was after all three graduated from college,” he said. Off-hours Ed enjoys golf; his office is filled with golf memorabilia.

He is active in the New York State Highway Superintendents Association and the Suffolk County Highway Superintendents Association. He is an avid reader of Superintendent’s Profile; he posted a photo from the May 2003 issue, showing suspension cable maintenance on the Bear Mountain Bridge, high above the Hudson River, on the department’s employee bulletin board.

Attached was the caption, “So you think YOUR job is tough.”

Even without bridge work, though, Ed’s days may sometimes have more than their share of frustrations and problems. However, he also points to one of his best days: when his crews successfully completed a 2,400 ton hotmix paving job. “This is when the job looks the best,” he said, “when you can see improvement.” P

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

Jump to Profile: