There is an oil shortage in this country, and that fact is perfectly obvious in the oil patch in Western New York and Pennsylvania.
“In one recent year there were 275 brand new oil digs planted in part of the Allegany River Valley called Chipmunk Valley,” said Rodney Gleason, highway superintendent of the town of Allegany. It’s on the town roads that much of the heavy equipment really takes its toll on.
His operating budget of $2 million includes his department’s assigned backup duties for the town’s water and sewer departments. Of that amount, $122,658 comes from CHIPS. The town has 152 lane miles to maintain.
“We are right on the Pennsylvania line. A lot of the trucks are coming from that area. We do battle on a regular basis with the heavy drilling rigs, heavy trucks, that sort of equipment,” he said.
“When I took over as superintendent in 2008, they were just getting going with a lot of activity related to oil production,” said Rodney. Oil and gas have long been traditional industries in upstate New York and parts of Pennsylvania, but with more modest production compared with other oil patches in this country.
“First, large trucks come in to take logs out and clear land for the oil wells. Then the drilling rigs and service vehicles come in. I kind of found myself as superintendent watching them beat the hell out of my roads. On one road I counted 17 different companies at once. After a couple months I realized that I had to get a leash on these guys.”
Getting a leash on them, for Rodney, meant addressing the situation at hand.
“I asked that they be accountable for damages to the road. If they damage the road, they are going to pay for it. This isn’t going to be a free-for-all in the Town of Allegany.”
Is there a payback? “Oh yeah,” he said. “There is something called road bonding. Basically it’s a security bond; there’s a lot of legal stuff that goes with it.”
It’s a delicate balance of righting the roads and not blockading business.
“Early spring is when we have the most problems. Their tanks can only hold so much capacity before they shut the wells down. I’ll let them haul before light before the sun is up. I also encourage them to haul after freezing conditions.”
Heavy hauling on county roads — which sometimes means meeting with 90,000 to 100,000 tons of hostility — sometimes results in the mining company paying for a contractor to do the road repairs, which is fine with the town.
“The big thing we have to have here is accountability,” said Rodney, who runs a department of eight besides himself.
“I don’t want to get in the way because these companies are employing hundreds of people. But it’s a balance. I’ve got to fix my roads. They know that at any time the town has the authority to put a weight limit on the road.”
Rodney said some towns, in similar circumstances with heavy vehicle traffic, will post all of their roads for 8 tons for two to three months, but he said, “I try not to do that because there are huge economic consequences if I shut a road down.”
He understands both sides; he has family members in the log trucking business.
How Tragedy Can
Deepen the Work Force
The Town of Allegany is physically somewhat remote from the mainstream. With 8,500 residents it’s often true that people have known one another since they were kids. Rodney Gleason clearly remembers the moment in 2007 when he and part of the crew noticed a Mercy flight flying overhead, never thinking that it was there for one of their own.
Charles Hitchcock (“Chucky” to his mates) was killed on the job while grading and rolling. Due to an equipment failure the machine he was operating started to roll backwards. He tried to steer the grader into a bank to get it to stop. It rolled, and he died doing work he enjoyed with people he had known for years. Negligence was not a factor in the accident, but afterwards safety training became more intensely respected in the department.
Chucky’s color portrait, a gift from his family, hangs over a doorway in the lunch room as a constant reminder to all of them.
“It can be over just like that,” said Rodney, snapping his fingers. “It was a huge wake up call for everybody.”
The investigation following the accident led to Rodney learning that PESH will voluntarily do a walk-through of a department’s facilities and programs.
“So we did that,” he said. “They looked at everything — for example, the lock out/ tag out program.”
Lock out/tag out is a recommended procedure to prevent a piece of machinery that’s in for repair from accidentally being put into work.
“They look at things like ground fault receptacles, no bare wires. They encouraged us to put better signage on all our oil drums, things like that.”
Another nuance was addressing confined space programs. For example, he said, “There is a permit you have to fill out for confined space situations. You may need to enter a sewer hole, or a sewer pump station, or a water meter pit.”
Following the voluntary procedures, Rodney said he was pleased that his department was not cited for any issues but benefited from some solid recommendations instead.
Boys and Toys
Rodney can’t say enough good things about John Mosier, the previous superintendent and the gentleman who strongly encouraged his former summer help mower to move up from his position with the crew and run for Superintendent in 2008.
Not surprisingly, if John comes around to say “hi” there also is probably a new piece of equipment to check out. This is a town that is recognized as having a good, modern fleet.
In this case John came by to admire a 2010 Kenworth T800 tandem axle dump truck, purchased recently for $167,000 and tricked out with a lot of stainless and aluminum to minimize the corrosion.
“I know his goal was to have all the dirt roads replaced before he left office,” said Rodney.
But that still hasn’t happened. The 8 miles or so of gravel roads rarely see more than a mail person’s vehicle. On the town’s Independence Drive, however, which flanks a large Wal-Mart Super Center, Rodney has clocked more than 7,700 vehicles a day, making it more heavily used than any other road in the county.
Rodney, now 32, went from being the youngest member of the crew to one of the youngest superintendents in the state. He said age has not been a problem.
“When I was in college I worked summers here. So I started at the very, very bottom. My predecessor had been here for 30 years. I couldn’t have asked for a better transition.”
With the support of local politicians and his wife, he ran unopposed.
“I knew I could handle the operations,” Rodney said. “The transition time where he showed me how to address the administrative end of it was very valuable.”
Another big help is the town controller who also happens to be his aunt, who helps with some administrative tasks, like employee health insurance.
He said, “Her help lets me focus on our operating budget and getting things done.”
He did more than focus; he said he almost tore his hair out in 2008 when the price of asphalt took a seismic turn from $350 a ton to $758 a ton. Asphalt, unlike salt and gravel, of course can’t be stored until prices are advantageous. He said, “With things like that going on you are forced to cut and Band-Aid some things. We are still rebounding from our original goals. We are still trying to get all the roads (144 lane miles) on a three-year cycle. I like to surface treat or rehab a road every three years. Whether it’s a surface treatment like mill and fill or something else, every road gets the same degree of attention.
“Any road the school bus has to travel is going to be blacktop, or oil and stone, or chip seal. It goes by about 19 different names. All of our gravel roads are graded and rolled a minimum of twice a year — usually in spring and fall. Sometimes they have it done three or four times. A lot of my dirt roads are very steep, and you get lots of erosion. If a big storm comes through, I’ll go check on how the dirt roads are holding up.”
The majority of the town of Allegany is river valley with a long waterway called Five Mile Creek running through the town. Not surprisingly, natural springs sometimes occur beneath dirt roads here.
“We try to dig as deep down — 2 to 3 feet — to repair something like that,” he said. “We chase springs up and down hills sometimes. It’s a big headache. You’ll see a spring pop up in the middle of a hill so you’ll go and dig it out and try to drain it. Next year it’s moved down the hill 40 feet.”
Cindy Booth also is a big help to Rodney.
“She is ‘headquartered’ here at our building as well and her primary job is town court clerk, but she manages approximately. 25 percent of her time as our highway secretary as well. She plays an integral role in helping manage my budget throughout the year and answering phone calls. As vouchers and invoices are submitted by vendors, Cindy enters them into a spreadsheet to keep running balances of all budget accounts. She really makes the ‘paper shuffle’ part of the job much easier on me! Also, she is normally, the ‘first line of defense’ when upset taxpayers call with complaints. She does a good job of maintaining professionalism and forwarding the complaints and messages to me to be dealt with.”
Accountability, Shared Services
and Crunching Budgets
“In this day and age everybody is looking for accountability,” said Rodney. “We really like shared services with places like the village of Allegany and Cattaraugus County.”
For example, he said the county may start a milling and paving project that produces millings he can use on his gravel roads. He said, “Those asphalt millings they cut off are very useful to me.”
Shared services for him mostly involve trucking. “It all balances out,” he said. The alternative would be hiring trucks at $95 an hour.
“We are one of the bigger municipalities. Equipment-wise we are very fortunate to have a decent fleet and an excellent full-time mechanic. That’s key to getting a good maintenance program. For example, we are in the process of replacing a spring pack on one of our dump trucks. If I had to sub that work out it would be three times the cost.
“There are not too many things we can not do in-house including replacing transmissions. I’m always looking at prices on different pieces of equipment. My goal is to have a 10-year return on a big truck, ideally I’d say seven to eight but that’s not realistic right now. Twelve years would be max. The last truck we kept for 14 years we got $8,000 for it. If we sold it after 10 years we might have gotten $20,000 or $30,000 instead. Those last three to five years you are dumping money into it, while the resale value is plummeting as well.”
Rodney pointed to the healthy resale value on the two new pick-up trucks the department purchases every two years, including the one he drives. “The bottom line is that the longer you keep something the more it’s going to cost.”
The other cost to his department this past winter was a public relations related nightmare when two of his operators hit parked cars, causing a total of nearly $10,000 in damages. Rodney explained, “Our insurance company denied the claim. After 15 years without an accident we have two. It was a real black eye for us. It even hit the Buffalo news.”
Home Town Boy and
High School Sweethearts
Rodney grew up in the village of Allegany and attended St. Bonaventure, a liberal arts college located in the village, where he earned a degree in social work. He describes himself as a “small town kid.” A college internship led to a job in human services for the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. He provided direct care in a small 25-bed facility for youth. The promotion that came was to a medium-security facility, also for youth.
“It was a very tough job, but it also had its rewards. Being highway superintendent is also a 24/7 job, but you don’t have to block experiences and not take them home at night.”
He joined the town crew in 2002 as an operator, becoming superintendent in 2008.
Rodney’s mother is a manager in a community bank; his father has run a village tavern for many years. Rodney’s wife, Jen, works in loan operations. Daughter Sidney (age 5) and son Zane (2) are clearly a focus of his life, which also includes golf and hunting.
“The kids spend a lot of time with my in-laws who have things like horses, pigs and chickens, so they have a great country life. When I come in to work to check on things during a weekend, my son will say to me, ‘Daddy work?’ meaning he wants to come with me.”
He said both kids love sitting on the heavy equipment.
Of Wind and Weather
Even though Rodney said this past winter was one of the town’s worst, you can’t really get him to complain about snowfall because he is surrounded by some of the heaviest flakes outside of the notorious snow citadel called Tug Hill.
“We’re very fortunate to be located in the southeast portion of the county,” he said. “Dayton and Perrysburg got 350 to 400 inches. I was talking to the highway guy in Dayton who said that on one Sunday it snowed 37 inches!”
Rodney uses a 25 percent salt to sand mixture, using untreated salt. He estimated they use about 5,000 to 6,000 tons per year.
“This is in a great location,” he explained of the modern, well-kept highway barn. “The blacktop plant is close; I have three gravel pits within 5 miles of here. My sand pit of 2,500 tons is about half of what we use, but materials are so close that limited storage capacity is not a problem.
“We do get wind storms and had a lot of flooding last year. Again, our damage was minor compared to other towns around here. We just had some culverts and small sections of road wash out.”
Rodney’s roads stretch from the river valley floor to elevations of 2,200 feet near where a tourist attraction called Rock City Park has entertained people for years. As a result, snowfalls vary almost as wildly in the surrounding hills.
“The old snow belt idea kicks in on the north end of town. There was even an old ski resort there. Snow is our big expense.”
Water, Sewers, and a Cemetery
In the Town of Allegany the superintendent’s job is more than plowing and mowing. Many assignments found on the highway department’s erasable board, where they keep everybody on the same page, reflect the department’s dedication to the town’s water distribution system, the sewer lines, and even one large, still active cemetery.
“The town acquired the cemetery, which is about 15 to 20 acres,” Rodney said. “I was up there this morning taking paychecks to the workers. We have a crew of four, including a woman whose grandfather ran the cemetery for many years. She supervises three workers including an on-call gravedigger and two seasonal workers from April to October.
“They are doing a great job on their own, but if they have an equipment failure or need some extra help, we back them up,” he said. “We like to have it looking nice. This is one of two active cemeteries in town. Selling grave sites helps to keep it self-sustaining, which is our goal.”
As for the water and sewer systems, Rodney said again the job is primarily maintenance and backup. The village of Allegany is the water supplier with three wells.
“We maintain the distribution system, we don’t have to treat. We fix the leaks, flush hydrants, replace hydrant valves, and hook up any new customers — things like that.”
Town and village sewage is pumped to the nearby city of Olean for treatment.
The New Old Town
Allegany is a large operating hub for the Western New York Pennsylvania Railroad so there are lots of trains. Dresser Rand is a large local employer. St. Bonaventure draws thousands of full-time students. As a result shopping malls, including a Wal-Mart Super Store, bring in people from all over. His curiosity about traffic volume led him to do a count on the road that takes people to the super center.
“I’m not bragging or anything, but I’ve got some roads that might see two cars a day, and I’ve got one that is measurably the most trafficked road in the county with 7,700 cars a day,” Rodney said.
An effort at managed local development is something Rodney calls “the Exit 24 water and sewer project.” He explained, “We extended an 8-inch water main through a golf course and under a railroad track to supply a second water line to the east end of town where we hope to encourage development.”
Rodney pointed to an ugly, completely vacant shopping mall suffering from 20 years of neglect as a hopeful start. He explains that the mall’s flagship store was forced to move when zoning requirements on fire systems were tightened and the available water supply was not adequate to the task.
“This was different than traditional trenching,” he explained. “This is not using what would be traditional excavation around here. They are doing horizontal drilling instead. The technology is new to this region. I watched the same company do a sewer main in one of the neighboring towns. That was a $4.5 million project, but it had no need for flagmen, no big mess and not much restoration when they were done. I was very impressed. On this job they say they will be in and out in a month.”
“We hired Blue Heron Construction, and they use a boring machine that looks like a giant auger on a track. It goes along at a depth of about 5 feet. The Town is laying new lines for water and sewer to the old shopping plaza to help get that part of town better developed. By boring sideways into the earth there is little or no disturbance to traffic and very little need for ground repair. Many people won’t even realize that the line is going by their house.”
He said this plan was on the drawing board but not funded for several years. He said, “The town paid for this through grant funds that came from money set aside from the sale of a building several years ago. They managed to change the intent for the money, which was to serve housing and urban development. Now the intent is economic development towards the west end of town. We are trying to get the infrastructure down there. It will cost the town about $367,000 for the water main in front of the building.”
“Water was our first huge step. Now we are looking to fund sewers as well. Initial estimates are $1 million to expand the sewer line to the area we hope to redevelop. It keeps us busy. There is always something going on.”
“People call with their complaint and sometimes a compliment, but I never let a telephone call go. I always get right back to them. I’m kind of a black-and-white kind of guy. I never sugar coat anything. Sometimes residents don’t always like what I’m telling them, but I think they respect it. It’s a wonderful town to call home.” P