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Highway crews rushing to fix Southold roads before winter moves in

10/28/2015 6:00 AM |

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Fixing Peconic Lane: $62,000.

Repaving Pipes Neck Road in Greenport: $35,000.

Patching up the worst parts of Narrow River Road: $45,000.

Repairing roads in the Highpoint Meadow development in Southold: $104,000.

This year, between state-allocated and Southold Town money, the local highway department will have spent nearly $1 million in repairs to grapple with the potholes and cracked roads caused by a harsh winter.

The Highway Department ran out of its repaving money earlier this month, requiring the Town Board to pump an additional $250,000 into the department to complete more roadwork before the next winter strikes.

But that money won’t go far enough, said highway superintendent Vincent Orlando. The work, he said, is far from over.

“Every day we do what we can,” he said. “We’re staying afloat.”

Most of this year’s damage was caused by freezing and “heaving,” the flexing of the road as temperatures shift. When rain falls or snow melts, water seeps into cracks in the road. Then, as temperatures dip, the water freezes and expands, pushing the cracks farther apart.

Those bigger cracks let more water in. More water in cracks means more ice, which means bigger cracks.

“It’s a runaway train,” Mr. Orlando said.

Last year’s walloping of snow wasn’t the problem, Mr. Orlando said. It was the continuous and record-breaking cold snaps, followed by sudden periods of warmer weather, that spelled trouble for the roads.

In a typical winter, the freezing and heaving damage is manageable. But last winter wasn’t normal by any means.

Snowstorms battered the area on a near-weekly basis, including a January blizzard that dumped two feet of snow across the North Fork. February was the coldest on record, with average temperatures of nearly 11 degrees below normal.

By the final two storms of the season, the roads were a mess, Mr. Orlando said. Highway crews were forced to spread only salt and sand on the roadways; trying to plow the snow would have ripped up what little asphalt remained.

Roads in Orient were hit the hardest, Mr. Orlando said, thanks to obsolete road-building techniques that left them vulnerable.

The streets were built in the 1970s for developments in the area using a now-dated method: laying the asphalt directly on the ground. The lack of an underlying layer means any cracks in the roads led directly to sand and dirt, Mr. Orlando said. That dirt became exposed during the winter, making repairs an even costlier task.

Mr. Orlando said the damage wasn’t limited to the North Fork. Towns across Long Island were affected, he said.

“Everyone had a problem,” he said. “It wasn’t just Southold Town.”

With nearly half of the department’s 18-man crew working on road repairs at any given time, town highway crews are now in a race against Mother Nature to get as many repairs completed as possible before the winter hits.

That’s because asphalt can only be laid in warm temperatures, Mr. Orlando said. If it rains or gets too cold, the asphalt cools too quickly.

In total, Southold Town has spent all of its $175,000 town repaving budget money, as well as all of its state-provided Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS) funds, totaling $500,000. 

The CHIPS money is reimbursed by the state. Due to the rough winter, the state freed up an extra $63,000 -— just enough to cover repaving one extra road, Peconic Lane.

Roughly $190,000 of the repaving money spent by Southold Town has been used for “micro-surfacing,” which is a short-term repair that costs half as much but only lasts about five years.

Mr. Orlando said there’s no hope of his workers being able to repair all the damaged roads in town.

The crews have patched up the worst ones this summer and fall, but that still leaves many other local streets.

It’s like the triage section of an emergency department, he said.

“I’m like a field doctor having to make priority decisions on the wounded roads,” Mr. Orlando said. In an interview, he declined to say how many damaged roads would be left un-repaired.

During a meeting with the Southold Town Board last week, Mr. Orlando said he has applied for a grant to cover some of the repairs on Peconic Bay Boulevard. The board approved the $250,000 emergency payment, with Supervisor Scott Russell saying the money could be “recaptured” in a few years by replenishing the reserve with tighter budgeting.

The board also discussed the possibility of a bond worth more than $1 million that could cover repairs of all town-owned roads. But this week, Mr. Russell told The Suffolk Times he would be “very reluctant” to take out a bond.

Mr. Russell said the town has many infrastructure improvement projects that need work, adding that while other towns have bonded out for highway repairs, that may not be the best move for Southold.

Still, Mr. Russell said taking repairs one year at a time could force the town to increase taxes above the state cap.

“If we’re going to take a pay as-you-go approach, we may have to pierce the cap,” he said.

Mr. Orlando said he understands residents’ frustrations with road conditions all too well. The streets near his own home have been ignored in favor of more dire repairs needed elsewhere.

Southold Town’s highway department is only responsible for local roads. State Route 25 and County Route 48 are plowed and repaired by state and county crews, respectively. While the town’s repaving money is exhausted, most of the highway department’s other budgets aren’t in the red, Mr. Orlando said. Snow removal exceeded the budget line by $118,000, but he said that’s largely due to overtime. Since many snowstorms fell at night on weekends, employees earned time-and-a-half pay, which quickly added up.

Money for sand and salt also went over budget, according to department records. But the department’s general repairs budget — a fund of roughly $2 million — still has $500,000 left. That will be enough to cover the overtime paid to highway workers currently repaving roads, Mr. Orlando said.

Subcontractors working for the town have been helping to repave and repair local roads. Once repaved, the roads should last another 10-15 years, Mr. Orlando said. The town has also had subcontractors micro-surface more than 20 roads across town.

In Mr. Orlando’s office at the highway department, a television is constantly turned to the Weather Channel. The slightest blast of cold could set the paving team back days, costing them valuable time to finish repairs and repainting.

On a 2015 calendar pinned to the wall near his desk, Mr. Orlando has marked the dates and times of when every snowstorm struck the area so far this year.

“I document them all,” he said, rattling off the unofficial storm names used by the Weather Channel. “Juno. Neptune. Linus. Thor. Thor was four whole days!”

There’s still room on the calendar for October, November and December.

As a chill returns to the air, Mr. Orlando said the department needs a mild winter this year in order to catch up on repairs.

He doesn’t want to think about the alternative.

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