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Every session of the New Hampshire Legislature requires numerous visits by NHDOT representatives who are testifying at public hearings on proposed Bills that could affect transportation. Much of this legislation goes before the House Public Works Committee, which specializes in transportation matters. This committee is well versed on all things transportation, but like all of us, it doesn’t hurt to get out of the office once in a while and see things first-hand. That was the idea behind a recent bus tour which took about 20 House members (mostly from Public Works) to places they hear about but rarely see. Sponsored by the New Hampshire Good Roads Association and Concord Coach, the tour featured stops at a NHDOT maintenance facility in Northwood, the Little Bay Bridge widening and rehabilitation project in Dover-Newington, the Sarah Long Bridge in Portsmouth, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The first stop at the Northwood #604 patrol shed just off Route 4 gave the lawmakers an up-close and personal interaction with just one of scores of NHDOT maintenance crews who continue to battle a pretty severe New Hampshire winter. They heard from those on the front lines, and got a good sense of their resourcefulness, their dedication, and their abilities to the job done. The stop at the Long Bridge, New Hampshire’s #1 “Red List” bridge was a real eye-opener for some. “It’s just in terrible shape,” Rep. Virginia Irwin, of Newport, told WMUR TV. ”I don’t know that I’d ever drive over it.” In fact the bus carrying the lawmakers was too heavy to drive over the weight-restricted lift bridge, which has a $150 million price tag for replacement. And why did a bus filled with New Hampshire lawmakers need to go to Maine? The answer was to hear directly from top officials at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard about why they see a continued rail link to the Shipyard via the Long Bridge as crucial to the facility’s future. The cited the Shipyard’s vital military role and its economic impact of over $1 Billion a year to the seacoast region. There were a lot of stops and a lot of information for the lawmakers to digest and consider. Some may still question certain projects or proposals. But each completed the transportation tour with a better appreciation and a clearer picture of the many challenges of meeting New Hampshire’s transportation needs.
No one was thinking rain during the first frigid weekend of January when the thermometer and wind chills were dropping to five year lows in New Hampshire. On a quiet Sunday morning, Assistant Commissioner Jeff Brillhart stopped by the NHDOT headquarters, the J.O. Morton Building in Concord, to catch up on some work. He happened to glance towards the Bureau of Finance and Contracts and was stunned by what he saw. It was raining. Water was pouring down from ceiling tiles into the first floor hallway. Calls went out for help, and the extent of the problem soon became glaringly apparent. A water pipe in a rooftop HVAC unit had apparently frozen and broke, sending many thousands of gallons of water into the western end of the building. The damage was extensive and far reaching. Three floors of offices and work stations took a major hit and the damage was widespread. Saturated tiles fell onto desks and computers were soaked, as were papers, desks, and rugs and personal mementos. The truly amazing story soon became the quick action of the first responders. On that first day, managers and employees worked side by side to move furniture, save documents, and start the process of drying out and recovery. Some employees discovered the damage when they showed up for work on Monday. They too, quickly became part of the solution. Instead of complaining about their unfortunate plight, everyone just lowered their heads and went to work to address the damage and temporarily relocate. The positive attitudes were contagious. By mid-morning on that first day after the flood, Finance and Contracts was back in business. The “cavalry” to the rescue came in the form of employees from the Department of Administrative Services, the Office of Information Technology, and carpenter shop from the Mechanical Services Bureau. Rugs were pulled, damaged drywall was cut out, and electronic equipment was taken apart and dried out. Furniture and files were moved and the offices became a temporary ghost town with the only sounds that of big blowers brought in by ServPro Inc. More significant damage was limited by the speed and correct actions of those involved in the response effort. As much as $650,000 in electronic equipment (i.e. computers, servers, printers, etc.) was saved. Within a few days, carpenters and painters from Administrative Services had repaired most of the damage. New sections of drywall and rugs were installed, walls were painted, and the empty offices began to spring to life. By the end of the month, normalcy had virtually returned to the previously damaged sections of DOT headquarters. With a little help from others, the NHDOT and its employees, already known for their ability to repair roads and bridges hit by natural disasters, had shown that very same resiliency and can-do attitude when a disaster hit home. A special thanks to all the first responders and the NHDOT employees who made the best of a truly difficult situation.
Less than half way through the winter of 2013-’14 and this one is already shaping up as one to be remembered. Every winter in northern New England has its challenges, but this one has really run the gamut for our plow crews. We’ve had the big snow storms, the long storms, brutally frigid cold, ice storms, wintry mixes, fluctuating temperatures, you name it. For one ten day stretch this January, it like seemed crews were being called out every day, night, and weekend for something, somewhere in New Hampshire. Veteran Department of Transportation highway maintainers like Felix “Bub” Gardner, Jr. climb into their trucks and set out to take on Mother Nature. Bub has been plowing the same 18 mile route (NH 43 and NH 107) in Deerfield for the State of New Hampshire for 29 years, the last 23 as a NHDOT employee. He heads south towards the Deerfield Fairgounds. “I know every nook and cranny on that route,” Bub Gardner says. “There’s more traffic to deal with now than when I started, but I still enjoy it. I enjoy trying to help other people out.” Snowstorms can go on for many hours. They’re a real test of a plow driver’s skills and endurance in maneuvering the plows, dispensing salt, and keeping a steady hand at the wheel. Bub is not a coffee drinker. His secret? “A Mountain Dew and a Snickers bar, that’s my combination that works.” Those who plow for the State of New Hampshire are good at keeping the roads safe, so good in fact that they are often taken for granted. They have set the bar high over the years. Today’s plow drivers have more technology and better machines at their disposal than ever before to help them do their jobs, but it’s still their skills and experience that make the difference. They are dedicated and take their challenging jobs very seriously. Bub Gardner speaks proudly of his co-workers at the District 6 Northwood #604 patrol shed. There’s a sense of camaraderie to help each other out if needed, and no shortage of experience. “It’s not their first rodeo.” For them, it’s personal. They are plowing the same roads that their friends and family are travelling every day. Bub Gardner has this message for those who venture out when it’s snowing – “Don’t crowd the plow. Give us enough space to do our jobs. You’re just as safe behind a plow truck as in your mother’s arms.”
“Everyone Wins With Research and Innovation.” Those words spoken by the Federal Highway Administration’s Patrick Bauer summed up why those of us in transportation must never sit still when it comes to the way we do business. The FHWA Administrator for New Hampshire was speaking at the opening of the “2013 NHDOT Research and Innovation Showcase.” The four hour event in Concord was organized by the NHDOT’s Materials and Research Bureau. It featured over 40 displays and formal presentations focusing on recent research and innovations developed and/or implemented by the Department of Transportation that have resulted in cost-savings, safety improvements, and enhanced environmental stewardship. Coincidentally, the November 13th event was held one day after I was in Indianapolis, Indiana accepting a national award on behalf of the NHDOT for “excellence in pavement preservation.” The 2013 James B. Sorenson Award is a BIG deal in the pavement world, and the NHDOT is only the third state Department of Transportation so honored. It’s awarded by the Foundation for Pavement Preservation, which has the organizational theme of, “ The right treatment, for the right road, at the right time.” I should also add “at the right cost and right now” because pavement preservation treatments effectively add life to a road at a fraction of the cost of full road reconstruction. Saving taxpayers money is certainly not as sexy a story as one that seeks to highlight government waste, but virtually every display at this showcase highlighted cost-savings or efficiencies combined with technological improvements and environmental protection. The displays included: the NHDOT’s dramatic increase in the use of recycled asphalt, the installation of wood-burning boilers at patrol sheds, the latest tools in winter snow and ice control and removal, high performance bridge coatings, the latest in stormwater treatment systems, and low-cost initiatives for traffic safety, to name a few. Patrick Bauer cited the NHDOT as “a leader in the country in the use of warm mix asphalt,” which allows us to place pavement at lower temperatures and thus saving energy while lowering emissions and extending the paving season. He called it “astounding” that we use recycled asphalt in 99% of our paving projects. Of course we can always improve in all areas of our mission, but the NHDOT remains committed to using its resources wisely, with the goal of better, faster, and cheaper for long-lasting transportation.
The first line from NH Public Radio reporter Chris Jensen’s story was right on the mark. It was, in fact, “hard to imagine there have been many openings of roadside scenic areas that attracted three former governors, a sitting governor and two US Senators as well as dozens of state office holders.” While the new Mt. Washington Scenic Overlook will provide a better, safer, and no doubt popular stop for visitors to the region, the real reason for the “Who’s Who” gathering of past and present elected leaders in New Hampshire was to pay tribute to the ailing “Dean of the Executive Council.” Ray Burton has steadfastly served the northern region of the state (with one two year break) since 1977. Ray has always been a strong supporter of transportation, recognizing its vital importance to his beloved North Country. He has tirelessly promoted big and small projects with the NHDOT Commissioner during his annual “District One Transportation Tour.” Every year also means Councilor Burton’s “District One Airport Tour” to promote aviation. And he’s always loved those train rides in support of rail. While never shying away from the political issues of the day, Ray Burton is now in the toughest fight of his life, battling the return of cancer that has taken a toll on his legendary stamina. Anyone who attended the November 1st event in Bretton Woods will not forget it. Heavy rain and winds gave way to sunny skies just in time for Ray’s 1975 Oldsmobile convertible to make its way down the long driveway from the Mt. Washington Hotel to the new overlook on the other side of US Route 302. Seated beside Governor Maggie Hassan in the back seat, Ray waved to those in lining both sides of the entrance holding signs that read, “Burton for Certain – Thanks Ray!” I was honored to introduce Governor Hassan, former Governor John Lynch, and U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, who all paid tribute to Ray and his many years of public service with anecdotes that brought laughter, applause, and genuine displays of appreciation and respect. A privately funded stone marker in tribute to Councilor Burton was unveiled, and Governor Hassan announced an effort is already underway to name the overlook after the Bath resident. Not to let the moment pass without comment, Ray took the microphone and said, “You learn very quickly don’t get too puffed up about all these things that come your way, because, chances are, somebody, before I get out of here today will un-puff me about all of this. Today is one of those times I really love being in public service and public life.”