Profile: Superintendent of Highways Tom Wik, P.E. and the Town of Amherst Highway Department

Jim Cropper

In 1798, the Holland Land Company acquired most of the land in western New York. Benjamin Ellicott and John Thompson, agents for the Holland Land Company, purchased all of what would become the Town of Amherst for $2 an acre. In 1801, Joseph Ellicott, who also worked for this company, was sent to survey the land so that an accurate map could be used to sell the land to settlers.

Joseph Ellicott also was responsible for initiating the planning of many roads in Western New York, which, at that time were mostly narrow Native American trails, such as the “Great Iroquois Trail” that crossed New York State from Albany to Lake Erie. Ellicott hired men to improve this trail between Batavia and Buffalo so that settlers could travel to Western New York more easily. This improved road was first called the Buffalo Road and is now called Main Street.

On April 10, 1818, the Town of Amherst was officially created by an Act of the Senate of the State of New York. This new town was named for Sir Jeffrey Amherst, an English lord who was commander-in-chief of the British troops in America from 1758 to 1763, before the American Revolution. King George III rewarded Lord Amherst by giving him 20,000 acres in New York, but Lord Amherst never visited his new lands.

Today, Amherst is a thriving township of approximately 112,000 residents. Located in the northern part of Erie County, Amherst is conveniently located outside of Buffalo, New York’s second largest city. Within a short drive, there are many attractions, both local and international, including the University of Buffalo located in the town itself, Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Niagara Falls, the Erie Canalway Trail and the Peace Bridge, which links the United States and Canada.

Since 1996, Tom Wik, P.E. has been the elected superintendent of highways in the Town of Amherst. Prior to his first four-year term, Wik served as an assistant municipal engineer. His broad background of experience, coupled with the fact that he has lived in Amherst his entire life, made Wik an ideal choice for the job. He grew up and still lives in the Village of Williamsville, which is located within the Town of Amherst, and has a population of approximately 5,500.

As assistant municipal engineer, Wik gained invaluable experience that helps him to this day. Beyond just a general knowledge of the Town of Amherst and its government, Wik has spent innumerable hours designing public works projects, writing specifications and coordinating major projects of all types and sizes. Wik uses his engineering experience to work with other consulting engineers on projects on a regular basis. Last year, Wik worked with consultant engineers on the development of plans for the Audubon Golf Course drainage and irrigation system rehabilitation and also worked on major storm drainage improvements for Harding, McKinley and Caesar Blvds.

Giving Back to the Community

Similar to many of New York State’s highway superintendents, Wik sought the position because he felt he had something to offer his home town. “I was really intrigued with the challenge of administration and the prospect of improving the highway department and the services it provides,” he said.

The Town of Amherst Highway Department tackles a broad scope of responsibilities. Wik and his crew of 171 full-time employees, 20 part-time employees and between 10 and 30 seasonal employees have a variety of year-round projects and objectives that keep them on their toes all the time.

In Winter, which hits the Town of Amherst with a vengeance, there’s snow and ice control on the town’s 366 miles of roads. Additionally, Amherst performs winter road maintenance on approximately 50 miles of Erie County roads. Throughout the summer months, the department is busy sweeping, flushing, patching, resurfacing and reconstructing roads. Amherst has an aggressive fall leaf collection program, which serves residents who bring their leaves to the curb throughout the “raking season” until the snow flies, and in the spring the town provides brush collection for residents’ unmanageable limbs, branches and brush.

Beyond what one might call these fundamental responsibilities, Amherst also provides general maintenance, drainage and irrigation work on three golf courses within the town. It also handles the budgeting for the maintenance and repairs on the town’s street lighting system, and it maintains all the trees, grass, park fixtures and structures in the town’s parks and sports fields. The department has begun a tree farm to help control costs in its beautification efforts — the local Boy Scouts help with the planting. Some of the trees will be used to continue the “Memorial Tree Program” along the town’s bike path. The town has an extensive network of “bike and exercise paths” winding through it, offering residents a variety of exercise opportunities.

The Highway Department is responsible for all Bike Path maintenance, security maintenance, grass cutting and undergrowth control.

As you can imagine, managing a department of this size is not an easy task. Wik, of course, relies heavily on all employees to serve the residents of Amherst. The “chain of command” is such that he has a deputy superintendent, Craig Fenter, and four general crew chiefs: Jim Binner, Jim Reynard, Paul Justin and Ray Lytle. The department’s various crews work staggered shifts, spanning the entire day from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., from 3:30 p.m. to midnight and from 10:30 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.

Amherst’s growth is evident in its new residential housing subdivisions. The town attracts many newcomers and housing starts always are under way. The Highway Department is responsible for street lighting in these new subdivisions and it’s a major task that requires near constant attention. And the budgeted money dedicated to lighting reflects this. Wik operates the highway and parks aspects of his department on an annual budget of $12.3 million. Additionally, $2.5 million dollars is budgeted strictly for lighting. Amherst’s annual CHIPS allocation is roughly a quarter of a million dollars.

A Thruway Runs Through It

The New York State Thruway passes through the Town of Amherst. Currently, the Thruway Authority is evaluating the Williamsville Toll Barrier, located between interchange 49 and 50 in the Town of Amherst. This evaluation, including engineering and environmental studies and a broad public outreach program, is aimed at determining if the existing Toll Barrier can handle current and future traffic volumes, enhancing public and worker safety and incorporating technology advances. (Traffic coming and going to northeastern parts of Buffalo can get tangled up at the Williamsville interchange.)

Amherst Highway Department operates out of a 25,000-sq.-ft. facility, built in the 1950s, contains 15 service bays and three truck lifts. The town is capable of storing its entire salt stock under cover.

During Wik’s tenure, Amherst has added a second storage barn due to his ability to work with his fellow community members, such as the local fire department, which agreed to donate this building to the Highway Department. Wik’s crews then disassembled the building, transported it to town property for the Highway Department and reassembled it. The building now shelters nine pieces of equipment from the elements.

The town of Amherst boasts an impressive equipment fleet. It has:

• 35 dump trucks,

• 15 one-ton dumps,

• 50 half-ton pick-ups,

• 15 4WD pick-ups,

• five street sweepers,

• two signal trucks,

• five brush chippers,

• two sewer jets, four excavators, and

• 14 leaf vacuums/machines and more.

Wik’s replacement program helps maintain an efficient fleet of well-maintained vehicles that serve the department’s varied responsibilities. He foresees adding new sewer jets and dump trucks soon and is assessing Amherst’s growing need for tree maintenance equipment. The garage’s talented crew handles preventive maintenance of all types and New York State Inspections.

Wik is a member of the Rotary Club, the Erie County Association of Town Superintendents of Highways, the New York State Society of Professional Engineers, the APWA and the New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways. In his spare time he enjoys golfing, flying planes, swimming, camping and fishing.

The Best and the Worst of Times

Tom’s wife, Mary, relayed what many highway superintendent’s spouses say — “there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“Tom’s job requires many hours. Many days he works almost around the clock, especially when we experience a snowstorm or flood. He is on the road by 7 a.m. on a regular day and attends meetings most evenings,” she said.

Wik vividly recalled his “worst day on the job.”

“The day the snow storm of 2000 hit was my worst day on the job. The storm hit Amherst just before drive time and everyone was let out of work and school, trying to get home. A gridlock was created and people were stranded all over town. Our plow trucks were stuck in the gridlock and couldn’t clear the streets.”

Now that sounds like a nightmare, but it was just one day, and the good news is when asked about his “best day on the job,” Wik said that he lost track of how many there have been. “There are too many to pinpoint just one,” he said.

Spend some time with Wik and it becomes crystal clear that he enjoys his work and that his favorite part of the job is being able to help residents, who can be proud that Tom Wik is at the helm of their town’s highway department and that he and his dedicated crew has implemented many new programs and are continuously focused on what’s best for Amherst.

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