Superintendent of Highways Richard Walters and the Town of Onondaga

Laurie Mercer

There’s nothing more alluring to heavy equipment people than new equipment. So it comes as no surprise that Richard Walters, superintendent of the town of Onondaga highway department can be found surrounded by a brand new Cyncon-delivered, Petersen Industries, $125,000 brush truck (their second one) in front of the town highway garage on West Seneca Turnpike, near the top of Onondaga Hill.

Like a lot of today’s new purchases, the machine can be single-operator driven for added productivity without sacrificing safety. The town also recently purchased a slightly used New Holland tractor for $34,000, outfitted with a boom to reach over guardrails. Onondaga is a heavily developed, mostly high-end suburban community. “People are very demanding,” Richard said.

A lot of the highway work involves maintaining roadside, in addition to the usual plowing and mowing. Most of the town’s equipment is painted orange and has aluminum boxes on the back.

Just the word turnpike — rather than street name — in the highway garage address tells you where you are in Onondaga, an area rich in early American history. It’s a bustling community, once predominantly farmland, with many new developments filled with high-end homes of professionals who often make their livings in the neighboring city of Syracuse.

Richard’s crew also just bought a 2009 double wing Sterling for $235,000 off a state contract, but they didn’t know at the time that Sterling was going out of business. Kaput. You can win some and lose some when it comes to decision making according to Richard. In his years as superintendent, nobody has ever run against him in an election — he’s that good.

Onondaga, named for an Indian tribe with a reservation just off Route 81, but no casino, has a population of just over 21,000 residents.

It’s a town rich in highways. Interstate 81 passes along the east side of town. U.S. Route 11 is a north-south highway in the eastern part of Onondaga, paralleling the interstate. U.S. Route 20 is an east-west highway in the south part of town. New York State Route 173 runs east-west through middle of the settlement, while State Route 11A diverges westward from U.S. 11. And New York State Route 80 cuts through the southern part of town.

While there are no villages in the town of Onondaga, there are 25 different hamlets, including one called Nedrow, which is the founder’s name, Worden, spelled backwards.

Although Onondaga is a high-end suburban community today, Richard said the residents fully expect the highway department to deliver big city services.

“It looks nice around here. People like it that way, groomed along the edges of most roads,” said Richard. Onondaga town residents get their brush picked up on demand — at least within two weeks after they call the highway garage. The service is prompt but also the butt of one joke about a resident who called the day after Christmas asking when his tree would be picked up.

Their dedication to service also got them a thank you card from a woman whose husband had to get to a medical appointment but their car was being blocked by a large tree limb across the driveway. Richard said, “It was really very touching the way she expressed herself.”

Constant clean up around the town keeps the crew very busy.

“Leaves go into a tub grinder with the brush,” said Richard. He said the residents can get any amount of grindings for mulch, and the remainder goes to a steam plant at no cost to the town for removal. The annual spring clean up takes care of everything that can go to a landfill, with the exception of Freon.

Town board meetings are open to the public, but Richard is well aware that his job involves heading off any crisis on the part of residents at his level first. Onondaga gets about 120 inches of snow a year. The town has 98.64 lane miles, including a couple of dirt roads. They also plow nearly 24 miles of county roads and tend to three cemeteries.

He said his crew of 17 with two part-timers “make me look good. And I try to treat them as best I can. I do delegate more than I used to. I used to be out on the roads all the time, now I’m buried in paperwork.” Reports on storm water runoff and things like that.

“There are more regulations all the time. I finally had to learn to hand things off. I was near burnout at one time.”

He credited computers with making his job easier.

“We were one of the first towns to use GIS for property inventory and measurement,” he said. “At that time it was very expensive to get it going. We started to use it with new subdivisions as they came online for things like catch basins, stop signs, and driveway locations, which are very important in a town like this one.”

Richard’s Path to Superintendent

a Complete Surprise

Richard, a native of Onondaga, graduated from high school and, as he put it, “won the lottery.” Unfortunately the particular contest was the draft lottery, and Richard was #3. His notice arrived on Dec. 24. Serving two years in the army in Vietnam during the war, he received the Purple Heart but is absent on details on how the coveted award was won.

“The worst part was coming back,” said Richard. “I even took my uniform off in a bathroom at the airport. People were that hostile towards us.”

On the positive side, he said his wartime service encouraged him to become a leader. He put it simply, “You have to make a decision. To do so, you have to believe in yourself.”

After returning from the service, he married his wife, Joanne, who works in health insurance. Four children quickly followed: Jacob, 37; Mark, 35; Rachel, 32; and Jennifer, 31. Four grandchildren (“Two each,” he said cheerfully), round out the picture of a guy who also likes NASCAR and golfing on his downtime. He hopes his recently purchased 2005 SSR car will, in time, prove to be a classic as much as a thrill to drive.

Richard joined the department in 1973 as a Class-C truck driver. He was one of about 10 employees at the time. Since then the roster has doubled. He eventually moved up to deputy and was completely taken by surprise when, while out on a call together, the then superintendent, 66, told Richard he would be leaving the position in two weeks.

He said of his subsequent run for office, “I always thought I could do a good job, but my father-in-law thought I was nuts. He said if you lose you won’t have any job at all!” Richard was just re-elected this past fall. He has been unopposed since he was first elected superintendent in 1997.

“If you can take a problem and fix it, that’s my understanding of a good day at work,” Richard said.

Town of Many Persuasions

Of the town of Onondaga Highway budget of $2.8 million, $136,000 was CHIPS funded in 2009. “We’ve got quite a mix” said Richard describing his town. “We’ve got some rural with 300 to 500 head of cows, old sections, suburban with $1 million homes, a booming community college, and a community hospital. Many of our roads are well trafficked.”

For road repairs Richard said they mostly do mill and fill with low-temperature pavement. They are experimenting with some newer technology called Suit-Kote along one 1.5 mile stretch of heavily used road.

For savings, Onondaga shares an additional Bobcat with four other towns.

“Sharing comes into play particularly in the summer when you truck asphalt. How many trucks can one town get their hands on? By sharing equipment with neighboring towns we can mill one day and put down material the next. Residents like to see that kind of turnaround. They appreciate it.”

High-End Homes

Where Cows Used to Roam

“We probably add 60 new homes a year — all in developments — and there is still plenty of land to grow.”

The old world order here, like the county’s first real court house, which was razed to make room for a better highway building, is going fast. In its place are up to date facilities and no fast food, even though the town hosts a growing community college — with its entrance marked with a glowing blue LED that has already seriously distracted some drivers who drove off the road. Dorms are sprouting like mushrooms, and high-end athletic facilities await students who were once simply commuters.

Never mind the town’s history; today’s paths of commerce are still well traveled here. Even in today’s economy, some residents are flush enough to buy building lots just to keep the land and their views of the valley below them open and undeveloped.

Downtown Syracuse, which supports many residents, is just a few miles down the road. There’s also a busy community hospital.

The highway crew over the years has had to get used to working in smaller spaces, such as cul de sacs, and has therefore added some specialized, modified trucks for the tasks.

“We just fabricated a truck,” Richard said. “Now we’re having a wing and plow put on it. We use these modified trucks exclusively for getting in and around subdivisions to clean them out. With a larger truck it can get slippery, and before you know it you’re on the lawn, knocking down mailboxes. Not good.”

“Nobody wants to see sand, especially in your developments,” he said. “For us, sand makes it worse because we have to clean the catch basins to get it out. So we have gone from a salt/sand mixture to exclusively using salt.”

Richard said he counts on the highway expos to help his department keep current on snow removal technology.

“Salt is now applied way more efficiently. And we have stockpiles to use in an emergency. You read about pre-wetting liquid and things like that. At the conference they cover things like that so all the towns can see what’s out there and determine what’s the cost for their municipality.”

Good Uses for Cyber Repair

Richard is too seasoned to have grown up with computers, but he was quick to see how they could save him time and money — specifically for repairs. For example, “We have an all-wheel-drive truck and one of the studs was breaking. Nobody had the parts for it locally. There is where the computer can really be a friend. And for price shopping it helps immeasurably.”

Richard went online and within minutes was in dialogue with an experienced sales rep. By next day air he had the parts he needed, and the repairs were quickly completed.

“You’ve got a $200,000 truck sitting there, and you can’t use it, so I get a little upset. But to be immediately in contact with someone who knows what your problem is and how to fix it, well, that’s amazing, and we have computers to thank.”

One of the peaks of Richard’s 36-year career in highway work has been as past president of the New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways Inc. “When you get to be president, you get calls from people all over the state,” he said. “I really didn’t expect that.”

He said during his past year as president he was energized to find that highway superintendents downstate were joining the organizations in greater numbers than in years past. Downstate, often representing larger townships and villages, was formerly under-represented in membership, so this is a gratifying trend.

“We are all going to benefit from the group association, large and small,” he said.

“When our politicians see us all dressed in our orange shirts and filling the halls in Albany on Advocacy Day, it shows we are a tight-knit community. Highway people are a different kind of people; they are very dedicated to what they do. They are not politicians, but along with many other entities (like airports and trains), they are going after that same pot of money that Albany represents.”

As president of the association, Richard got the opportunity to testify on behalf of his supporters. He said the format — seated in front of several important people sitting in a raised gallery, is intimidating. He said, “I was fortunate in that I got to listen to others presenting their cases. You get to pick out some of their better points.”

For example, one of Richard’s state senators is John DeFrancisco. Richard said, “I’ve been going to Advocacy Day since 2003 so he knows who I am. Plus I see him at other functions here locally. The more you can make your presence known to your local representatives, the more they understand who you are and where you are coming from.”

He points to the CHIPS allocations as being key to why highway people need to communicate their needs intelligently to their representatives in Albany.

“Local Roads Matter” is the phrase they use as their rallying cry. Richard explained that the CHIPS allocation is distributed fairly to towns and villages both large and small. It is their collective strength as highway superintendents that gives them bargaining power.

Why Local Roads Matter

What He Learned From Others

As a former president of the organization, Richard said, “Now we have a strong organization moving in a positive frame.”

With 36 years under his belt, Richard said he often has looked to other long-standing highway superintendents for clues on how to be continually successful at the job. During organization meetings, Richard has had an opportunity to observe “superintendents who have been there a long time to learn what has worked for them. I tend to think to myself, this guy can make it happen, and that’s why he’s still there.”

“Being president of the association was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.” P

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