Highway Super: Town Falling Behind on Roads

One of the slides from Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor's presentation on the town's road repaving program to the town board on November 15.

Pushing for a long-term capital program to allow the Highway Department catch up on fixing Southampton Town’s 430 miles of roads, Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor warned the Town Board last week that worsening weather and other issues are making it hard for his crews to keep up with the task.

“I know we don’t want to raise taxes,” he told the board at a work session on November 15, “but when you look at a town, one of the first things you see … is the road system and we’re falling behind.”

Citing a 10-year program launched by the Town Board in 1999 to spend $5 million a year to catch up with backlogged roadwork, Mr. Gregor suggested that the public wants good roads and would support a bond issue to fund a similar plan. The 1999 program was not funded by a bond and did not met the $5-million-a-year goal, he said.

Mr. Gregor reported that his crews put 16 miles of roads back into good condition in 2018 with $2.05 million that was budgeted for the work, a significant drop from the 25 miles of road they fixed in 2012, when $3.76 million was budgeted. He blamed the drop on the state’s 2-percent property tax cap, which was signed into law in 2011. Mr. Gregor $4.5 million in the 2019 town budget. His line totals $3.2 million if state highway aid and grants meet expectations, town comptroller Len Marchese said during Mr. Gregor’s presentation.

Meanwhile, conditions are growing more challenging, he said, with more traffic, heavier trucks, and subdivision roads accepted into the municipal system in the 1970s and 1980s — before tougher inspections were conducted — beginning to break down.

Then there’s the weather.

“I expect the weather to not give us a break,” Mr. Gregor said. “Whatever you want to call it, the trend is changing. The water in the ocean is warmer, these storms are stronger and it’s putting stress on the infrastructure. And it’s putting a stress on the population that has a hard time dealing with the concept of having flooding issues.”

Mr. Gregor said the town’s goal for its road drainage systems is to contain up to two inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period. Summer thunderstorms now are dropping three inches in three hours, he said.

“Our force is working hard,” he said, with crews out during the recent nor’easter cutting down trees that had fallen across roads. It’s “a lot more than we can handle at times. We used to have 100-plus employees. Now with administrative staff we’re at 62.”

Adding to the department’s headaches is the pace of building “out East,” as Mr. Gregor put it. “The building has been pretty crazy, and all the last lots are getting built on,” he said of areas east of Shinnecock Canal. “Some of these lots were less than desirable” and are subject to flooding because they lie lower than the road. They were where “the water used to go.”

Because of the weather, the traffic, and the poor quality of some subdivision and former farm roads that are now failing or particularly exposed to runoff, they can’t just be repaired or repaved. They have to be “reclaimed,” Mr. Gregor said.

“It’s an immense process,” he said, which involves grinding up the roadbed, injecting it with oil and paving it over, which takes more time and money and is more vulnerable to weather delays than repairing or repaving well-constructed roads.

“If we have to reclaim these roads, we’re spending twice as much, so instead of $136,000 per mile” to do the job “it’s up to $240,000 and $250,000,” Mr. Gregor told the board.

Some roads pose especially challenge drainage issues. Mr. Gregor cited the Whispering Fields subdivision off Head of Pond Road in Water Mill, which receives runoff from “a couple of hundred acres of potato dirt” with a “row crop road right to the back of the subdivision.” The water “goes onto Head of Pond Road” like rapids, he said.

“Farming is a great part of our history but the issue is dealing with more than copious amounts of runoff that’s almost impractical to try to handle,” Mr. Gregor said. “It costs more money and everyone wants their problem fixed.”

He noted that many newer homeowners come from the city, where sewer systems make drainage an invisible process. With no municipal sewer systems in the unincorporated town, “what we can offer is to lessen the impacts and try to mitigate it” when flooding becomes a concern.

“You hear talk of ‘storm resiliency,’” Mr. Gregor said. “We see sea level rising all over; in the bays, in Peconic, in Shinnecock. On Dune Road in Bridgehampton, you know we’re seeing these problems.”

The town used to have 350 “structures” to catch stormwater runoff, Mr. Gregor said; now there are 3,000 and “everyone wants their drain cleaned.” He told the board some flooding issues can’t be helped. It “could be an inconvenience for an hour as the water percolates down … It’s not that bad. It’s passable. The question is how much do you think the town is responsible for containing …”

As for road maintenance operations, Mr. Gregor told the board, there are three levels of work: road repair, road resurfacing and reclamation.

Repairing a road involves what Mr. Gregor called “pulses of 40 feet or 100 feet” on one travel lane, sometimes requiring milling out a roadbed and restoring it. Milling the entire road and overlaying it with new asphalt is resurfacing. Reclamation is “grinding a road in place to create new roadbed,” he said.

East of the canal in 2018, in Bridgehampton and Water Mill, Halsey Lane, Hildreth Lane, Church Lane, Deerfield Road, Hayground Road, Highland Terrace, Pauls Lane and David Whites Lane were resurfaced.

Reclaimed roads this year included Narrow Lane South in Water Mill and Harrys Lane and Mill Lane in Noyac. “We’ll be back next year” to complete Tredwell Lane in Noyac, Mr. Gregor said.

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman questioned some of Mr. Gregor’s figures, saying the board had not reduced his budget during his time as supervisor.

“I wouldn’t bring incorrect numbers to the town board,” Mr. Gregor said.

“I just don’t remember budgeting less than what you requested,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

One of the tables and graphs Mr. Gregor showed in an accompanying slide show indicated that the percentage of his budget that is supported by state highway aid has climbed from 20 percent in 2010 and a low of 18 percent in 2011 and 2012 to 58 percent in 2017 and 49 percent in 2018.