Roger M. Chirico, highway superintendent of the Town of Philipstown, ran unopposed in last month’s election. Not only that, he was the highest vote getter in the township.
That comes as no surprise to most voters in the bucolic little Putnam County town of 9,400, not far from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After all, they are the ones that travel over the roads he and his hard working crew take care of.
And, he points out, these are not just ordinary roads.
“The majority of my roads are still dirt,” said Chirico, who was appointed highway superintendent in 1998 and was just re-elected to his second term. “We are responsible for almost 59 miles of roads — 31.45 are dirt and 27.51 are paved. The residents like dirt roads and they like the highway superintendent to maintain them. But, it takes a lot of schooling and a lot of knowledge.”
Members of his 12-man crew attend school four days a year and also attend seminars at Cornell University to brush up on the latest techniques for environmentally safe and sound ways to maintain dirt roads.
“Road grading is a big part of maintaining dirt roads. We have two graders running all spring and summer. We have to dig the potholes out. We roughen up the whole road to the bottom of the pothole. We cut the road to the bottom of the pothole to make it uniform, rake it and compact it with a 20-pound vibrating roller,” the 71-year old highway master said.
After compacting, his crew lays down a coating of a biodegradable calcium solution that hardens the road and keeps the dust down, he added.
“Paved roads don’t need much maintenance at all compared to dirt roads. Dirt roads need chemical treatments 12 months of the year to keep the dust down and to harden the roads,” said Chirico.
There is an art and a science to plowing the unpaved roads and keeping them clear.
“Frost is the key factor. Sometimes you can plow these roads with no problem when they are frozen. But, when the dirt road gets soft you have problems and that can lead to high maintenance costs. When it rains or thaws, they are difficult to plow and maintain,” he said.
“Working on soft roads can bend the frames on trucks and bend the plows. Dirt roads can really be hard on the equipment,” he continued. “The trick is to try and keep the frost on the roads as long as possible. We don’t treat them with chemicals. We try to treat them with sand instead of chemicals. We also try to plow at certain hours, like late in the afternoon or nighttime when it is colder.”
Dirt roads also present challenges, such as steep grades and narrow cartways.
“The elevation and the percentage of grade on the dirt roads is what makes for problems. The roads are very narrow and the grades are 12 to 15 percent. Some of the roads are only 12 feet wide, others are 14 feet wide. At that width, they are way too narrow for a school bus or an emergency vehicle,” said Chirico, a U.S. Navy veteran and operating engineer who cut his teeth on construction projects throughout South America and Cuba.
One town road generated a lot of controversy when he proposed paving a three-and- a-half-mile stretch of East Mountain Road North to make room for emergency vehicles, reduce erosion, and cut down on stormwater runoff.
“There used to be 20 houses on that road. Now there are 70. We had to get the permission of all the property owners to widen the road. We wound up in court because they were fighting it,” he recalled. Permission was needed because, according to the property deeds, the landowners own all the land, including the roadway up to the midpoint.
“I tried everything in my 45 years of experience … but it is impossible to maintain a dirt road with 18-percent grade. We’ve tried biodegradable chemicals, storm drains, catch basins — but the runoff is still there,” he said.
Chirico said the safety of the road, in his opinion, is paramount. “The road was 12 feet wide in some portions, and with erosion on both sides, you’ve got a 10-foot road. This will not be a superhighway — just an 18-foot wide road with two 9-foot lanes, and some even smaller.”
He ended up being called the “blacktop terrorist” because of his proposal. But, the judge saw things his way and after a long series of delays his crews finally went to work widening and paving the three-and-a-half-mile section of road.
“We are still working on it. There is a lot of work involved. We have to install catch basins for stormwater management and guardrails. The job involves cutting trees and cutting slope. When we put it out for bid, the estimated cost of the job was $800,000. We couldn’t afford it. We are doing it ourselves. Any other highway department would not take on the job, but we are. It will only cost the town about $325,000 — the cost of the asphalt and paving,” he said proudly.
Chirico said another factor prompting the paving was that runoff from the dirt roads could also adversely affect the reservoir which serves the nearby City of Beacon.
His crew installed a brand new culvert next to the intersection of East Mountain Road North and Esselborne Road where the creek comes down from Beacon Reservoir. The new culvert, which is 36 feet long and 16 feet wide, will replace four 36-inch culvert pipes installed as a temporary measure a number of years ago when the road was washed out during a storm
He stressed that he was not opposed to maintaining dirt roads per se — “until it becomes a burden on the taxpayer.” He added, “I’m not for paving every dirt road,” pointing out that the expense of maintaining steep dirt roads is “not fair to the taxpayers who live on the paved roads.”
Chirico said his crews are carrying out all of the drainage, widening and roadbed preparation work, while a subcontractor is doing the paving work.
Chirico, who once served as mayor of the Village of Cold Springs, which is located within the confines of the Philipstown, but has its own road crew, does take pride in looking out for the taxpayers’ money.
“You never get enough money in the budget to buy what you need,” he said. His annual budget is $1.6 million and he does his best to stretch the dollars as much as he can.
“The two Mack trucks we are using right now probably would have cost us $50,000 a piece. I got them for nothing. I shop around and see what equipment other highway departments have that they don’t need. We picked up the trucks from the Putnam County Highway Department. They had 100,000 miles on them, which isn’t too bad for a truck. But, they were rotted out and rusted a little bit. I was going to take the best parts from both of them and put the two together to make one. But, we just bought new panels and other body parts. We put $8,000 worth of new materials on each. For $16,000 we got two 10 wheelers,” he said.
New trucks, with plows and sanders would have run approximately $130,000 he said.
Another time, Chirico went shopping for a sander. He said the average cost would have been about $16,000 each for brand new stainless steel units.
“I found two used ones. We put in a bid of $951 a piece. For $1,900, we got two,” he said.
The town’s equipment, a lot of which came from Nortrack, near Beacon, NY, includes John Deere 570 and 670 graders, a John Deere 450 dozer, a Bantam Gradall, three 10-wheelers — two Macks and an International, six, six-wheelers, including four, four wheel drive — all Internationals, two Ford 550s, a Ford 450 and a Ford 350.
“Every piece of equipment plows. Well, the 10 wheelers don’t plow. Everything else does double duty,” he said.
The same can be said for all of his staff, he added. The staff includes George Hyatt and Ronald Vantassel, foremen; Frank Weise, head mechanic and deputy superintendent; Arthur Hotaling, mechanic; Robert Moran, William Allen, Adam Hotaling, Roger Chirico III and Scott Underkoffler, all operators; David Morse, Fred Vantassel, Anthony Dahlia, Andrew Guaragna and Gregg Sayers, all CDL drivers; Beverley Hotaling, full-time clerk and Patty Watkins, part-time clerk.
“I have a 12-man crew, plus two girls in the office and me. Every one of my people is very valuable. All road crew members run the equipment. They all drive trucks. They are versatile. When the equipment is in the shop and we need mechanical work done on it, they do that, too,” he said.
“My favorite part of the job is being out in the field with the fellows. Actually, after you teach them how to run something and you see them progress to be an operator, you say, ‘Gee, I showed that guy that and he takes pride in his work.’ I like them to take pride in what they do. I have a lot of young fellows, hard working and they get paid pretty good,” said Chirico.
Because of the town’s rich history, it should not surprise anyone that residents actually went to court to keep the dirt roads. The roads, they say, help preserve the slow pace of the town and the quaint charm of the area.
Within Philipstown lies the Village of Cold Spring, the Village of Nelsonville and the hamlets of Garrison and Manitou. The area’s history is shaped by water: the Hudson River, perhaps the nation’s first interstate “highway;” the numerous springs that have provided cold, fresh water to travelers and residents alike; and Margaret’s Brook, which provided power to the West Point Foundry, the nation’s biggest ordnance factory of the mid-19th century.
During the American Revolution, part of George Washington’s main army camped here. It is Washington who is credited with popularizing the name Cold Spring after he had a drink during one of his visits.
The West Point Foundry was established in 1818 and supplied most of the heavy cannons, including the famed Parrott Gun, used by the Union army during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln visited here in 1862 for an inspection of the foundry. In 1848, the railroad came through, further enhancing the community. As the century waned, so did the foundry, which closed in 1911.
Tucked along the Hudson Highlands, Philipstown is known for its rich natural landscapes and historic markers, making it a favorite weekend destination as well as a permanent home for many longtime residents.
The town offers the county’s only access to the Hudson River from docks in Garrison and Cold Spring. Many residents and tourists launch kayaks from the shores of Cold Spring, joining the popular marina life here. The village also is known for its antique shops, cafes and boutiques.
There are plenty of places to catch glimpses of the river including Constitution Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Boscobel Restoration and Foundry Cove Park, as well as from homes perched in the hills. The Little Stony Point State Park provides views from the town’s northern borders of Storm King and Breckneck mountains.
Chirico is a former member of the Cold Spring Village Board, serving as a trustee for 10 years and Mayor for four years. Currently, he is vice-president of the Westchester Putnam Town Superintendent of Highways Association and a member of the New York State Town Superintendent of Highways.
He has been a resident of Cold Spring for the past 40 years and a veteran of the U.S. Navy having served during the Korean War. He has been a member of Local 137 Operating Engineers for 35 years and is now retired. He is a life member of the Cold Spring Boat Club, member of the VFW, Knights of Columbus, Cold Spring Fire Company, Beacon Boat Club and the East Hook Rod and Gun Club.
He is a widower. His wife of 42 years, Betty, passed away in 1997. He has three children, Karen, Roger Jr. and Michael. P