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Wendy M. Levy/The Commons

A construction crew works on the Green Street retaining wall last month in Brattleboro. That project is expected to be finished by July.


DPW gears up for construction season

Good weather provides the window for repairs of roads and other town infrastructure

BRATTLEBORO—As the summer season heats up, the crews at the Department of Public Works gear up.

The department will cram more than $2 million of capital projects into the months between the end of mud season and Thanksgiving.

Someone from the department is always working on something, DPW Director Steve Barrett said. While one crew repaints the street markings, for instance, another mows, another runs the street sweeper, and a fourth repairs the department’s equipment, he said.

Water & Highway Superintendent Hannah O’Connell said, “We’re very lucky to have a crew that has such a serious work ethic.”

When asked how much money the department saved this year thanks to the light winter and mud season, Barrett said that any savings from the DPW budget is put into the Unassigned General Fund Balance.

“This year, Town Meeting approved appropriating $449,225 from the balance to reduce the tax levy and to fund a portion of the Bonnyvale retaining wall and the Memorial Park swimming pool,” he said. “DPW hopes to add to the Fund Balance again because of the mild winter.”

The DPW contracts out its more complex infrastructure projects, like the Bonnyvale Street retaining wall, or the Elliot Street bridge.

According to the department’s website, the highway side of DPW oversees 30 bridges and large culverts. It also maintains approximately 85.32 miles of roads, 35 miles of sidewalks, 645 culverts, and 2,000 drainage structures and pipes. The highway division is in charge of street signs and street markings.

The utilities side of DPW manages the town’s water systems. The drinking water system includes approximately 59 miles of underground pipes, 391 public fire hydrants, and 167 privately owned hydrants.

The sewer system includes approximately 59 miles of underground piping, five pump stations, and the waste water treatment plant. The treatment plant processes an average of 1,300,000 gallons of waste a day.

Here’s a closer look at projects that will keep the DPW busy this summer:

Elliot Street bridge

The state will repair the Elliot Street bridge through its accelerated bridge program this summer, O’Connell said.

The 30-day project is expected to start June 20. During construction, the bridge will close. DPW will arrange detours.

DPW restricted traffic on the bridge to one lane in 2014 after the discovery of a hole in the bridge’s surface, called “the deck.” DPW’s attempts to patch the hole resulted in a much bigger hole, according to Barrett and O’Connell. The department resorted to covering the hole with an 8-foot by 10-foot metal plate.

The deck’s concrete was too far gone, explained O’Connell.

Barrett and O’Connell estimated the cost of repairing the almost-70-year-old bridge came to $1 million.

“A huge, ginormous chunk of money,” O’Connell said. “We didn’t have any idea how we would come up with it.”

Then, one happy day, the state surprised the DPW by offering the town a grant through the state’s accelerated bridge program, O’Connell said.

Good news kept coming. According to O’Connell and Barrett, the state inspected the bridge and found that its larger components, like the abutments, were in good shape. Only the deck and railings needed replacement.

The grant comes with a 2.5 percent town match, O’Connell continued. The state estimates the repairs will cost $600,000, with the town pitching in less than $20,000.

O’Connell said the project will cause frustration for travelers. The bridge serves as a shortcut from the Union Hill and Elliot Street neighborhoods to Canal Street and the area around Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

O’Connell and Barrett said the short-term frustration will be worth the long-term gain.

The state plans to close the bridge completely, detour traffic, finish the bridge in 30 days, and get out, O’Connell continued.

Renaud Brothers Construction of Vernon have contracted for the work.

Green Street retaining wall

The Green Street retaining wall project “has gone so well,” O’Connell said.

The project is progressing faster than O’Connell or Barrett expected, and they said they like the look of the textured “ready rock” concrete wall taking the place of the former dry laid stone wall.

Barrett said the whole project should wrap up by July 1.

The next step will be replacing the roadway and sidewalks along Green Street Extension. The road will eventually reopen.

A $300,000 state grant through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development has helped cover the project’s estimated $386,379 budget.

The retaining wall that holds up Green Street Extension and overlooks Harmony Parking Lot was so old, the DPW doesn’t know for certain how old it is.

Two years ago, the department closed Green Street Extension after the wall pulled away from the road.

It had been failing for years, O’Connell said. But in recent years, the rate of deterioration accelerated.

The DPW feared that if the wall collapsed, it would cause damage across Harmony Lot and into the Main Street businesses.

O’Connell said the damage would be more than falling rubble: the wall could cause a domino effect of damage by dragging with it a water main and other underground infrastructure, she warned, noting that the water main is enough to flood nearby businesses.

Black Mountain Road water tank

Unbeknownst to most, there’s a million-gallon water tank tucked up behind the campus of SIT/World Learning.

Built in 1965, the steel tank was designed to service the North End, or Putney Road, businesses.

According to Barrett, the tank helped maintain water pressure in the overall system during emergencies, such as a fire.

Large house fires require lots of water to put out, O’Connell said. For example, firefighters battling a apartment house fire at 214 Elliot Street in 2013, drew up to 4,000 gallons a minute from town hydrants. The Brooks House fire in 2011 used more than a million gallons.

O’Connell and Barrett are excited about the new tank estimated to cost just under $1 million.

It’s made from a composite of glass and steel similar to the blue silos often spotted at farms, O’Connell said.

Tapping on a window pane in Barrett’s office, O’Connell explained that the glass’s chemical properties allow it to remain flexible compared with most commercial glass. As the steel tank expands and contracts in changing temperatures, the glass moves with it, protecting the steel from rusting.

DPW recently completed the design phase for the tank and coordination of access to the school’s campus.

The department also will add radio and communication infrastructure serving town departments to the tank, O’Connell said. This will allow them to remove a temporary radio tower on site.

After the bid process, the project will take four months to complete.

Bonnyvale retaining wall

“The wall has been failing for a few years,” O’Connell said.

The department initially lined the road’s shoulder with Jersey barriers to lessen pressure on the 125-foot dry laid stone wall.

As the wall weakened, the department crews shifted the barriers farther into the roadway.

Similar to the Green Street retaining wall, the one on Bonnyvale Road supports other infrastructure such as telephone lines, water mains, and sewer pipes, O’Connell said.

Should the wall collapse, it would take the other infrastructure too, she said. “It’s going to ruin a lot of people’s days.”

Barrett estimates the wall dates to the 1800s.

Many of the stones used are boulders, he said. The original builders lined the stream below with stones as well. Barrett wonders if the waterway acted as a canal at one time.

Repairing the wall is estimated to cost $262,000.

Bid documents are in the works, O’Connell said. The department hopes to have the project finished by winter.

A combination of funds will pay for the project.

In addition to the normal appropriations for the town budget as authorized by voters at Representative Town Meeting, the Agency of Transportation awarded Brattleboro a $175,000 Town Highway Structures grant this year. The program requires that the town pay 10 percent of the cost.

“We’ve been very fortunate with that program,” O’Connell said. The same pool of money paid to fix the Washington Street retaining wall last year.

A second AOT grant — through its Better Back Roads program — will provide $40,000. The town must pay $8,000 of the project costs, O’Connell said.

Frost Place water main

Like arteries, water mains build up plaque.

“It’s called tuberculation,” O’Connell said.

Deposits in the water create mounds (tubercles) of what looks like rusty sand dunes inside water pipes.

Before the town installed filtration systems in 1989, municipal water carried more sediments and components that could corrode or deposit on the pipes, Barrett said.

Periodically, the DPW hires a company to scrape the pipes clean. The company then coats the scoured pipe with an epoxy liner.

O’Connell noted that since the water contamination scandal in Flint, Mich., made the news, the department has received calls from concerned residents.

The DPW conducts a water sampling program that sets a standard higher than what the state requires, she said. Upon request, the department will test water at residents’ homes.

A water quality report is posted online on the town website, brattleboro.org.

Barrett added, “We take water very, very seriously.”

According to Barrett, Brattleboro’s oldest water lines date to the 1880s. Private businessman George Crowell — for whom the Crowell Lot on Western Avenue is named — started the town’s first water system.

According to On the Job: The Brattleboro Public Works Department, a history of the DPW written by Wayne Carhart and Charles Fish, Crowell, the publisher of a woman’s magazine titled The Household, moved to town in 1866.

At that time, most homes and businesses received their water from private wells or nearby springs. Fire control amounted to hand pumps and bucket brigades.

In 1869, a fire destroyed almost all the buildings on the west side of Main Street. The fire quickly surpassed the available water supply and pressure, write Carhart and Fish.

Starting around 1880, Crowell developed a spring-fed distribution system for downtown. Two years later he purchased an uncompleted reservoir on Chestnut Hill. The system, fully operational by 1888, included two fire hydrants on Main Street.

According to Carhart and Fish, Brattleboro quickly outgrew Chestnut Hill’s 5-million-gallon capacity. Crowell continued to add capacity, including Sunset Lake and Pleasant Valley reservoir, until his death in 1916. He offered to sell the water infrastructure to the municipality in 1892, 1905, and 1909.

It took the town more than 20 years to decide to purchase the water system. Crowell’s asking price started at $200,000, and by 1909, he was asking $345,000.

The town eventually bought the system in 1925 from Crowell’s son for $550,000.

Chestnut Hill reservoir

For years, the town has debated what to do with the Chestnut Hill reservoir, now disconnected from the town’s water system.

Barrett said the department held multiple public meetings over at least six years asking residents whether they would advocate abandonment, removal, or stabilization.

Residents opted for stabilization.

Barrett said the department has worked with engineering firm New England-based DuBois & King, Inc. and personnel from the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Dam Safety Program to make improvements to the site.

The department has budgeted $280,000 to help stabilize the dam, install overflow piping, seal the reservoir with a new cement lining, and construct a new fence around the small reservoir.

O’Connell said removing the reservoir would have had a major impact on the Chestnut Hill neighborhood.

It’s also more difficult to get new infrastructure in place than to maintain existing resources, she said.

While the town does not use the reservoir now, Barrett added that it could return it to use in the future.

Paving and sidewalks

The department will undertake multiple paving projects this summer.

To acknowledge the impact the Interstate 91 bridge project has had on the town — in the form of increased traffic diverted through downtown to relieve congestion at the work site near Exit 3 — AOT recently awarded Brattleboro a $200,000 grant.

Barrett and O’Connell said the department will use the money to resurface portions of Western Avenue and Upper Dummerston Road from Route 30 to the town line.

The new top coat to these roads — which have taken most of the extra traffic — can add 10 more years of useful life to a paved road, Barrett and O’Connell said. The coating smooths out small potholes and cracks, stabilizes the road’s surface, and blocks water.

This year, the department has $300,000 in its capital budget for paving.

Some of the areas to receive attention include portions of Bonnyvale Road, Mather Road, South Street, and Thayer Ridge Road.

Barrett and O’Connell anticipate the work on Bonnyvale and Mather roads to be minimal. South Street and Thayer Ridge, on the other hand, each need an overhaul — down to the dirt and new pavement.

Barrett said the department routinely receives questions about why it uses different treatments on different roads. Why not just overhaul the worst roads?

DPW can protect more miles of roads by mixing and matching treatments as needed, he said.

It might sound counterintuitive but, according to Barrett, if the department poured all its money into fixing the worst roads, no funds would remain for preventive work on the better roads. Soon, all the roads would be in bad shape, he said.

Regular maintenance includes street sweeping for paved roads and, for dirt roads, grading and coating them with a magnesium chloride mixture to keep them from becoming dusty in the heat or washing away in a rainstorm.

The department also has $50,000 in its budget for various sidewalk repairs across town.

Barrett estimates replacing a sidewalk costs approximately $100 per foot.

The High Street hill sidewalk has received extensive attention in recent days. According to Barrett, this section has salt damage. Sidewalks that slope more steeply require more salt in the winter to keep pedestrians upright — but that additional salt also causes more damage.

The department has kept the sidewalk’s existing granite curb but has replaced the walking surface with asphalt instead of concrete.

Asphalt, Barrett said, withstands salt better. It’s also easier to patch.

Downtown pedestrian push buttons

Finally, the crossing signals will probably get new buttons this summer.

Barrett said the existing push buttons activate without a pedestrian pushing them in inclement weather. That reduces their efficiency.

O’Connell added that push buttons have a five-year life, something the department didn’t know when the state installed the new crossing signals in 2010.

The change, if implemented, will not be very noticeable — but it’s one that Barrett and O’Connell hope will improve the signal cycles.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #358 (Wednesday, May 25, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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