Snow doesn’t push him around

County highway director unfazed by relentless winter storms

CLAVERACK–“The snow started around 4 a.m. and we had all our foremen on the road by 4:30. All our trucks were on the road between 5 and 5:30 and we made one complete round by 8,” said Bernard Kelleher Jr., Director of Highways for Columbia County in an e-mail sent from his office on Tuesday. The crew had, as usual, cleared 800 lane miles in three hours.

As snow continued to fall, Mr. Kelleher said he hoped that the forecast for a break in the storm, which was expected to resume the next day, would hold so that his men could get a night’s sleep.

Last week, on an overcast day with no snow emergency, Mr. Kelleher was able to discuss the sometimes daunting task of snow removal which, although only one facet of Mr. Kelleher’s job, it is probably the part that county residents notice and appreciate most. In other seasons, road maintenance, bridge repair and the supervision of buildings, tools, trucks and the people who work with them occupy his time.

We met at Mr. Kelleher’s office in the Columbia County Highway garage on Route 23B in Greenport. The office contains happy memories for Mr. Kelleher. As a child in the 1950s he sometimes accompanied his father, then the Columbia County highway superintendent and later commissioner of public works, to work. He played on the trucks and had the run of the sprawling county garage, which, he points out, was built in the 1930s for only $75,000. His father, who retired in 1977 at age 63, overlapped with his son’s tenure there just one month.

Mr. Kelleher Sr. designed and built County Route 11, a Craryville road subsequently designated the National Beauty Award Highway, having received recognition for its aesthetic appeal during the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.  The road was so well constructed that 30 years passed before it needed any repairs, said his son, the person now responsible for its maintenance.

Mr. Kelleher, Jr., 50, started as a summer highway crew worker right out of Chatham High School, against his father’s wishes. He was hired by Wilmer Card, a colleague of his father’s. He loved the work and has been there ever since.

While his father had a degree in engineering, Mr. Kelleher, Jr. learned on the job and attends annual highway superintendent workshops at Cornell University’s Local Roads Program, where he says he learns the most from the other highway superintendents he meets there.

The county has 29 plows run by 58 men. Each of the seven crew foremen drives a pickup truck equipped with a plow and carries a chain saw to insure that when a storm hits, they will be able get to work. Drivers communicate by phone and radio. The county’s large orange trucks weigh between 37,000 and 66,000 pounds; 18 of the 29 trucks are 10 wheelers that have internal conveyor belt sanding systems that direct sand in front of the rear axles and are computer controlled to stop sanding when the truck stops. Rather than buy fuel through the state, Mr. Kelleher prefers the bidding process and the opportunity to work with a single supplier.

How does this winter compare to others? Mr. Kelleher calls it “a good old fashioned winter,” with a volume of snow that some of the newer highway crew members may have not seen before.

Between storms crews are instructed to plow the banks back to make room for the next onslaught. Truck repairs are done in-house. A couple of trucks were waiting for plow blade patching. The garage has its own welding shop and a parts store, and runs like a small business. Tools are kept in a locked area and must be signed out. Even shovels with broken handles get fixed. A sign shop makes all county signs. A furnace, new this year, burns waste oil to supplement the main heating system that runs on natural gas.

A massive snow blower sits ready to clear the garage parking lot. A duplicate, also owned by the county, is parked at the airport.

While it’s impossible to predict the cost of plowing for each storm, since every storm is different, or to predict how many storms will hit the county, since every winter is different, Mr. Kelleher says his department’s share of the county budget has already taken a large hit this year.

“This may be one of those years when we go over budget,” he said.

Despite the severity of the storms that hit during the winter months, the storm that hit the county in the early morning hours of October 1987 remains freshest in his memory.

“We weren’t set up to fight snow. We had to put the plows on,” he says of the major winter blast that fall. He remembers leaving for work, having received a call at 5 a.m., without boots or winter clothes and when he returned home to suit up, he got stuck on his road and had to hike in. “The power was out a week. It seemed like we worked forever cutting trees, with the eerie, continual sound of them snapping off all around.”

“We have great highway superintendents here, the county is lucky,” he said of his colleagues in the county’s municipalities. “They work while everyone else is sleeping. We buy a lot of coffee,” says the director who doesn’t drink coffee himself. He doesn’t need it, he says. Adrenalin keeps him going.

The 800 lane miles of road under Mr. Kelleher’s supervision include state highways that run through Columbia County and that the department plows under contract with the state Department of Transportation. The Taconic State Parkway and Routes 82, 9G, 9, 9H, 203 and 20 add up to 259 lane miles added on to the 540 lane miles of county roads.

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