City Engineer and DPW Superintendent William J. Gray and the City of Ithaca

Laurie Mercer

By the time you read this article Bill Gray will have begun his first phase of retirement from a job that for the past 25 years meant directing the city of Ithaca’s many departments consisting of the city’s department of public works. High on his list of immediate rewards for retiring may be the absence from his 114-mile daily commute from Fayetteville.

Bill’s staff of 160 people (down from just a few years ago) addresses the public’s needs and demands in a vibrant city with ample attitude. Because of a large student population (20,000 at Cornell alone), there are always newcomers, and students seem to like to walk — with their backs to traffic — out in the streets. It’s a place characterized by an academician’s habit of questioning what’s going on, all of the time. Because of a general concern for the environment, Bill says the waste the city creates has dramatically decreased each year.

Ithaca even has its own currency — called the Ithaca Hour, designed for both trade and barter to support local commerce. The Hour is still in use in parts of the community. Esquire magazine once called Ithaca, “stuck in the 1970s,” citing the proportionally large numbers of men with ponytails and women wearing Birkenstock sandals. As a community the city seems to value creativity, intellect, achievement and success.

“Here in Ithaca,” said Bill, “they worry more about things like just potholes, and the concern is more than just carbon footprint.”

His position is appointed, which he said is rare, even for cities. While mayors may come and go, Bill answers directly to a board of public works, which meets formally three times each month. The board is made up of six citizens appointed by the mayor to three-year terms.

During his 25 years on the job he said there is only one issue — traffic calming — that continues to dominate his professional life nearly every single day.

How many DPW superintendents, whose responsibilities include 72 lane miles of steep hilly streets and treacherous gorges, also have to address 32 bridges, student suicides, people defending cobblestone streets, a nine-hole golf course, an ice rink and swimming pool, two public garages, lots of parks, in addition to sharply shrinking budgets in a city where 60 percent of the real estate pays no taxes. The city is famous for short, 25 percent grade hills and runaway vehicle accidents. Residents want a low-salt diet for roads, widening, and more frequent bike lanes for leisure, a Finger Lakes setting right on the shores of windy Cayuga Lake. The century-old reservoir is silting in. There’s a lot going on here.

But Bill seems content with his chosen career path. Trained as an engineer, he said he likes to build things. While facing continuing budget restraints, building more with less looms as a bigger task. His desk in an office in City Hall lies under a burden of many piles of paper and files, and yet the important work is being done. His responses to questions often begin with, “The simple answer is…” And then, engineer through and through, he gets to the depth and breadth of the issues.

He may be one of the few highway superintendents whose visitors have to go through a screening procedure and bag search before they can visit him. It is City Hall, after all. Near some plaques commemorating the opening of the Thurston Bridge is a bicycle helmet on the shelf if he wants to ride his bike to meetings.

His department heads include: Ray Benjamin, assistant superintendent for streets and facilities; Erik Whitney, assistant superintendent for water and sewer; Tom West, assistant city engineer; Dan Ramer, chief operator, wastewater treatment plant; Cliff Murphy, highway supervisor; Brian Carman, fleet maintenance supervisor, Rick Searles, parking garage/Commons supervisor; Scott Gibson, environmental engineer; Jeanne Grace, forestry technician; and Chuck Baker, chief operator, water treatment plant.

The entire DPW group meets regularly to discuss their agendas so that everybody is on the same page and aware of what other departments are doing. In DPW issues there is plenty of overlap. Basically, Bill is responsible for water, wastewater, highway, buildings, parking garages, the golf course, and 22 parks in the parks system, as well as 32 bridges, including a few restricted to pedestrians.

A relative newcomer, Kathrin D. Gehring is Bill’s executive assistant. Her desk is right outside his office door. It was Kathrin who triggered our interest in profiling Bill after reading the magazine.

Traffic Calming — the New Buzz Word

In addition to a large employee roster of 160 (with a large number of them facing retirement), add to the mix increased traffic calming procedures, which Bill calls his “constant companion.” He said that traffic calming has become a critical component of urban design. The DOT has manuals available on how to use context-sensitive design to address the issue. Ithaca is home to Cornell, Ithaca College, and a community college so that traffic and parking are ever-present provocations. “Traffic calming,” he said, “is the longest lived issue since I came here. Its focus is on how to handle traffic in the neighborhoods.” One old-fashioned solution to calming has always been to install Stop signs on every street corner, assuming drivers will stop.

Newer approaches to calming cars include roundabouts, which seem to be springing up like crocuses in springtime, diverters, and something called speed “humps,” which are mini-sized speed bumps. Humps create a kind of attention-getting friction that encourages slowing down, especially in suburban parking lots where driving can become a contact sport.

“One of the constant concerns on the part of the public and my office is traffic in the neighborhoods. It is too fast, and there is too much of it,” Bill said. “Some of it is temporary, such as that caused by a detour, but some of it is permanent, such as students using a shortcut to get to Wegmans in a hurry.”

In this college town where more students are now bringing cars to campus than ever before, the other car-related growing demand is for safe parking. Even the city has two parking garages under Bill’s care, including supervising the personnel. One large indoor parking garage is at the Commons, an inner urban area created by banishing cars completely in the 1970s to create a trendy retail hot spot reserved for pedestrians. Street theater and entertainment keeps the Commons a lively meeting ground as the tree-lined area serves as the central business district for Tompkins County.

Where to Park?

Parking is a huge deal on Bill’s agenda list.

“Cornell (which encompasses about 60 percent of the real estate in the city), now rents space to employees rather than offering free parking,” he said. “As a result more people park in the neighborhoods to avoid buying a permit. The neighbors were upset, thinking this isn’t fair, so the city finally legally developed a system so only people with permits could park in their own neighborhoods.”

Bill said until that move, restricted parking was an idea limited to Albany where government workers, in a similar scenario, were parking all over residential neighborhoods for free.

“The general concept is that a public street is a public space,” he said. “You need special legislation to change that. It turns out that a number of universities have the same problem we have.”

For example, the University of Rochester, for the first time, just hired a traffic superintendent, which is a position becoming more common on college campuses.

Bill said the city has a fairly strict enforcement policy on parking, but that neighborhoods were somewhat “self-policing,” about the issue. He said, “If they can’t find a place to park, they want to know why.”

He cited a recent issue that still has neighbors riled. The city added a bike lane that removed restricted parking spaces on a steep hill. “We are still dealing with that,” he said.

Ithaca’s Influence

There is one way to quickly identify how much influence Ithaca has on the rest of the world, and that is to roll call just a few of its more famous inhabitants in different fields who were either born here, went to college here, or taught at one of the two major academic institutions (Cornell and Ithaca College). Just a few famous residents and former residents across several popular disciplines are: Josh Bard, catcher for the San Diego Padres; Hans Bethe, Nobel Prize winner who worked on the Manhattan Project; Dustin Brown, right wing hockey player for the Los Angeles Kings; Ann Coulter, conservative author and talking-head; Alonzo B. Cornell, governor of New York (son of Ezra who founded the University); Buck Dharma, lead guitarist of Blue Oyster Cult; Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner; John H. Gear, senator and governor of Iowa; Alex Haley, author of Roots; David Lee, Nobel Prize winner; Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer; Tim Moresco, defensive back for the New York Jets; Valdimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and other works; Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel 1996-1999, 2000-present; Christopher Reeve, actor in Superman and other films; Robert C. Richardson, Nobel Prize winner; Carl Sagan, astronomer and popular host of Cosmos; Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, Mike “Tag” Tagliavento, skate park maven and co-creator of BMX videos; David Forster Wallace, best-selling novelist; E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and famed New Yorker editor; and Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense (2001-2005) and president of the World Bank in 2005.

So what is the sum total effect on the DPW professionals when the neighborhoods are full of well-informed citizens? Bill put it briefly: “They worry about more than just potholes. They also worry about the long-term effect of things such as highway salt.”

But when intellect meets budget cuts, priorities can change. For example, Bill said, “The city was on a low salt diet when I got here (25 years ago). Once you get off the hills and down on the flats we were expected to use a mix of salt and sand. After about 10 years of budget cuts the city finally relented on the policy because it actually takes more time and labor to do salt and sand. Routing and such becomes more complicated and time consuming. The hills and flats were to be treated differently, plus sand makes cleaning the drainage devices more necessary.”

Following discussion he said the city turned to just plain salt. “We now use straight salt, and we keep treated salt on the hillsides when it warrants it.”

The Son of

an Engineer

Bill Gray grew up in Fayetteville outside of Syracuse. His father was an engineer for Carrier, while his mother stayed home.

“I was lucky enough to have a mother who stayed home, but I’m sure she didn’t always see it that way.”

Two of his brothers are engineers and another is an architect. His sister completes the family picture. A family property on an island in the St. Lawrence River area will probably benefit from his extra time once he stops coming to work at City Hall.

Single, Bill likes to remodel classic cars. His barn and chicken coop must be overwhelmed by the collection including bits and pieces of Model As from the 1930s, TR3s from the 1960s, BMWs from the 1980s, and his “daily drivers,” including a GTI bug for the rather long commute (around here) of 115 miles. He lives in a family home in Fayetteville.

Educated in Syracuse, he got a degree in math from Union College.

“I was in college in the late 1960s when Vietnam was in full swing. It looked like I was going to be drafted, so I decided I’d rather do it as an officer.”

He had been in ROTC in college; he joined the Air Force. While deployed in Florida, Turkey and Colorado he helped to track satellites from radar during the early part of the Space Age. Following the military he went to Syracuse University to earn a degree in civil engineering.

One early job was in Cazenovia working for a consulting firm doing a lot of work in water and wastewater design. He said during the 1970s and early 1980s a lot of money was spent on those two areas. During that time he helped design “a major piece of the wastewater treatment system for Ithaca.” As budgets for water began to diminish, he took a job as a city engineer for Ogdensburg, in the St. Lawrence area where his family has an old, island-based Greek revival homestead.

In December 1986 he came to work as the city engineer for Ithaca. In 1990 he was temporary superintendent, and in 1991 the position became permanent. With one brief interruption, the city engineer/superintendent of public works position had been held by his predecessor for 35 years.

“When I got here the city already had a long history of paying attention to public works,” he said. “I inherited a well-equipped, good-size department.”

But with budget cuts — working with a negative budget for the past five years — times have changed with reductions in personnel and less frequent replacement of needed equipment.

Doing More With Less

True progress, and not just maintenance, he said has been hampered by budgets in the past 10 to 15 years.

“The pinch,” he said, “really started in 1991 when New York State cut aid to cities. We’ve been dealing with flat budgets ever since. I remember in 1991 they were going to cut $1.5 million, and that had to come out of the Public Works Department. It shows up in capital projects, the quality of street repair, the replacement of equipment, and the reduction in personnel.”

“We’ve been putting together negative budgets for the past 15 years. The next person in the job will continue to have problems with money. It’s a problem that all the cities in the northeast are having. In New York State it all comes out of property taxes, and we already have the highest property taxes in the country.”

“Eventually it’s also a question of rationalizing what people want and what they are willing to pay for. When our department is working well, people don’t notice it, and that can be a real disadvantage when it comes to budget meetings. There is a sense of entitlement to public works and public safety. If the water main is broken and you can’t get your shower, we are going to hear about it, because if water comes out of the tap, that’s what I’m entitled to!”

Bill pointed out why public works is different from every other aspect of city government.

“Public works is one area where items have a useful life. The impacts don’t show up for a while. So you don’t rebuild the road as per your schedule, you don’t replace the backhoe when it’s needed. The snow still gets plowed but not quite as fast because of the five trucks is in the bay, two are broken down.”

“You can unhire a police officer or a fireman and they literally are not there. But if you don’t repair a street, it’s still there. You can’t get rid of a park because it still needs mowing, play devices, trees, and repairs. Are you going to abandon miles of streets? Are you going to abandon the parks?” The city of Ithaca has 72 lane miles of streets and 30 buildings.

By the time items get into a city’s budget, they have been through many hours of debate and discussion. Years ago Bill had a new dump truck stricken from the budget at the very last minute.

“They did it without much discussion,” he said. “They decided they were not going to replace it with a new one. And yet they were incurring greater maintenance costs and less productivity.” While he has never quite gotten over his surprise, a friend gave him a plastic dump truck, with a price tag on it, and it’s sitting on his office shelf.

Taking It to the Streets

The city of Ithaca has 72 lane miles of streets, including 4 miles it maintains for the state. Bill said pavement lasts here for about 30 to 40 years before needing a major rebuild. Theoretically, he said, they should be scheduled to replace a mile or two of pavement each year, but they are not keeping up due to costs. They are resurfacing less than a mile each year.

“There are places where we just re-surface it, and there are places where we mill it and resurface it. Then there are places where we actually dig it out for a total rebuild. Sometimes we can leave the curbing, and sometimes we have to pull them out.”

The work can also be interesting. “One of the streets we rebuilt last year had us pulling out the trolley ties from the 1910s.”

Ithaca was an early adapter of trolleys.

“The tracks were gone but the ties were still embedded in the pavement; the remnants of our history.”

He estimated that Ithaca, around 1892, was perhaps the fifth city in the nation to have trolleys. One line ran to the lake and a park complete with a zoo, a merry-go-round, and a dance pavilion that became Ithaca’s first vaudeville theater. Several bridges by Cornell, since replaced, were built by the trolley company. By 1915 trolley service to the lake had ceased. The original parkland, now a play center, is maintained by the DPW.

Ray Benjamin, assistant superintendent for streets and facilities, was quick to point out a few other quirks in the roads here. One is a deeply serpentine shaped route, packed with period homes, along the edge of a major gorge. Cascadilla Park Road was built in the early 1900s and resembles another famous serpentine road in San Francisco.

Another short piece of road just a few yards long reveals some early cobblestones that neighbors demanded be preserved just as some hot patch was being administered. The cost of restoring this tiny piece of road, which is not a major thoroughfare, would be prohibitive. Because of some of the neighbors’ opposition, the little piece of old road remains a haphazard mix of vintage cobble, some hot patch, and asphalt.

Ithaca’s mayor, just 25 years old, is a big believer in social networking, so the DPW now has a Facebook site thanks to Kathrin, Bill’s assistant.

“Just watching the mayor operate, there is a whole era of communications coming.” He said residents always ask, “Did you get my e-mail? So far no one has said did you get my Tweet, but I suppose it’s just a matter of time.”

He astutely pointed out that in emergencies, new communications devices are superb but e-mails have also made resident rantings more audible. He jokes that if the person writing an antagonistic e-mail had to write it down, find a stamp, and put the letter in the mail to him, they might not bother with it.

He said the amount of incoming information in his inbox is sometimes “overwhelming; it’s phenomenal.”

One of the long-range issues the city has been continually dealing with since he got there is making the community more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. Ithaca, with nearly 4 percent of its population identified as bicycle riders, handily beats the national average of 1 percent.

“When I got here 25 years ago they were just previewing a bicycle plan for the city. It has taken about 25 years to make half of the proposed improvements.”

As a result, more bike lanes are opening up and they are putting an end to open grate decks on bridges that can cause serious bike accidents by gripping the skinny tires.

It’s more than pretty views from here. For example, FEMA awarded $880,000 in early fall 2011 when Tropical Storm Lee tore apart Cascadilla Gorge, a popular hiking trail that is used by students to go from campus to Collegetown so often that the trail is sometimes called “the staircase.” During the storm, whole sections of staircase railings and mortar and stone pavement cascaded downstream, leaving the trail’s infrastructure severely damaged and dangerous to use.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (a post-Depression work program of the 1940s) constructed the original pathways and bridges. The gorge drops more than 400 feet, cascading and carving through layers of shale and sandstone with six major waterfalls within view.

In addition to restoration, the FEMA grant will be used to mitigate damage from future flooding, as much as that is possible. Cornell has spent more than $1.5 million to make the gorges safer as well.

Ithaca is built over a series of steep waterfalls and gorges, some of them hundreds of feet deep and lined with trees. As a result, there are many bridges of all lengths and purposes under the DPW roster. In early December the Clinton Street bridge was due to reopen. Bill said it was flagged several times over the past 20 years. Built in 1943, the bridge was the last of the open grate decks with octagonal steel grids. One of the major upgrades has been to remove the open grate deck.

Among the most photogenic and famous campus bridges, which links the main campus and student housing at Cornell, is the award-winning Thurston Road bridge whose rebuild cost was $10.4 million, funded through federal, state and city funds. When the rebuild was completed in 2007 it was a very big deal, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Thurston bridge is now a closed concrete deck with wider lanes for bikes. The bridge design won several awards. LaBella Associates of Rochester was the engineering firm.

As the LaBella Web site states, the rehabilitation was of a “National Register-eligible 215-foot span steel box arch structure.” Noteworthy were the two arch rib configurations. That design element distinguishes its look today. But, since the ribbon-cutting, the look of the structure has already been changed, and not for the better, with the addition of protective fencing because of suicides that have occurred here. Further discussions have led to the decision to add some kind of net beneath the span. A similar proposal has been approved for the same reason on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

LaBella’s site says the bridge was widened by 12 feet to accommodate two 5-foot-wide bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks on each side with lighted guardrails. This was accomplished by adding two 30-inch induction bent, tubular steel arch members placed at the fascia of the widened bridge section, located partially above and below the bridge deck. The existing floor beams are lengthened and supported by the new arches through steel w-section columns and hangers. The takeaway was a rebuild that echoed the old structure but improved upon it for today’s traffic in many ways.

Views from the bridge, even from a car, are arresting, and yet Bill pointed out that the gorges, which make the place beautiful, also represent a source of stress on DPW operations — some of the cataracts are frequented by students and drifters. The tunnels date from a time when water power was used for manufacturing, including Ithaca guns. Today it is the superintendent for streets, Ray Benjamin, who has to continually find ways to keep people out of them.

Bill said, “Gorges are a reflection of the topography. The things that make the area beautiful also make it harder to maintain. Gorges also represent a certain amount of physical risk. They are steep. Every once in awhile somebody makes a mistake and falls. We have suicides as well. Gorges represent a kind of beauty that not everybody has, and physical danger that not everybody has either.”

“Gorges certainly require bridges. There is also a lot of water running though Ithaca with the city’s creeks and such.”

Treating Water

It’s fitting that Bill’s retirement would coincide with a long-time-coming new water treatment plant — a $35 million rebuild that is just getting started and will take about three years to complete. Studies began for the project in 1994. Why did it take so long? “With three water systems in the area, we had to do a study to determine if we (the city) should stay in the water business,” he said. The city processes about 4 million gallons of water a day. The watershed is about 700 acres. All of the city water flows by gravity.

Demolition of the 100-year-old existing plant (on Water Street, of course) will be followed by two years of constructing the new facility, which also will change from sand filters to a membrane system. During a public meeting, Bill said the newer method offered a high level of treatment for “the societal concerns that are developing now and that will probably continue to develop over the next 20 or 30 years.” Because of events including 9/11, the new facility will be securely fenced.

Other water-related concerns are the 100-year-old reservoir, which is silting in.

“The reservoir was silting in so fast that the city built a dam above it. It is imperfect, but it did slow down the process and allowed us to get to this point 100 years later.” He said the silt dam has been cleaned out but not as often as it should have been. Silt that is removed becomes an income stream when it is reconstituted as top soil and sold.

The waste treatment plant he helped design many years ago when he was employed by an engineering company now treats approximately 6.5 to 10 million gallons of raw sewage each day. Wastewater flows through eight miles of sanitary sewer mains located under the city. Following treatment, clean effluent is released into nearby Cayuga Lake.

Wastewater treatment plants can smell pretty poorly, and it’s a credit to the DPW that their plant, which is right next door to a popular city Farmer’s Market and grocery store, makes no olfactory impact at all at any time of the year. “To operate one that isn’t smelly is quite a success story.”

Technology Advances Are More

Than Welcome

Not all news is bad news with more demanding requirements for all aspects of DPW work. Bill pointed to equipment that is “so much more powerful and expensive. So are personnel.” In some instances technology has allowed them to use fewer people. “We used to do a lot of surveying out of the engineering office with a three-person crew. Now you can collect a lot of survey data with one person. Some of it is by photographic systems. Other approaches are to have one person and collect a tremendous amount of data with great accuracy by using satellite-based survey equipment and GPS.”

In view of these improvements, crew demands have changed in his department.

Computer drafting, too, has reduced the need for personnel.

“You can take data directly from the survey equipment, and the computer will plot it out for you.” He well remembers the old days when they transferred notes and did the hand plotting. Such tasks have “sped up dramatically.”

Equipment-wise, in a well-populated city built on steep hills and gorges, he credits the smaller and more powerful backhoes favored today that can “fit into a tiny space.”

What to Do Next?

The inscription on the board in a conference room reads, “The funny thing about retirement is that they give you a watch when you no longer need to track time.” It just happened to have been written on the wall of a meeting room while Bill was being interviewed by Superintendent’s Profile.

Even though the thought was not written with Bill in mind, he does seem to have some lingering doubts about his impact on the department. He said he has always liked to build things. “I am having a hard time convincing myself that I am leaving it with my primary objective met. My goal has always been to leave the department better than when I found it.”

If he surveyed his staff Bill would find that he achieved and maybe even surpassed his goal. People-management skill, unlike engineering, can’t be plotted on the x/y coordinates. Being a good leader is something you improve upon by doing the job. The people who work for him say they have learned a lot. So while roads can be resurfaced, his influence on the people who worked with him remains unchanged.

As one close co-worker put it, “He has accomplished so much. It’s time to recognize his selfless work over the years, many times working from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. to attend late-night meetings. What he has done and sacrificed over his career is astounding. It’s time someone pays tribute to this great man and wonderful public official.”

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