Public Works looking to technology to help meet demands

When considering the Public Works department and strat­egic plans it is tough to determine where to start.

The department takes in roads, bridges, water, and sew­er, but under those categories, there are a multitude of im­portant tasks that need to be done, and they have to be completed on budget.

Centre Wellington council is undertaking a strategic plan exercise for its depart­ments, to determine where it should be heading during the next ten years. They are to be checked every five years, for correction or alteration. The Wellington Advertiser is doing a series of interviews with all of the town­ship department heads to ob­tain a sense of what each depart­ment is considering.

“Some of the issues we’re facing are rates and fees,” said Director of Public Works Ken Elder, who noted that when council began this exercise, it stated “tax increases are not good enough” to solve the problems. Creative thinking is necessary.

Elder’s department oversees 104 bridges and over 600km of roads. Many bridges are deteriorating, and the recent winter left roads in poor shape.

But while the demands for road and bridge services seem to keep going up, Elder’s bud­get was hit with huge gasoline price in­creases. If that was not enough, the price of steel tripled over the past few years. So bridge rebuilding costs have soared. Council recently de­layed reconstruction of the 8th Line bridge in Pilkington because it will now cost close to $4-million to rebuild.

Another headache for Elder is the cost of scrap metal has gone up along with the cost of steel. Signs are made of metal, and many of them have been disap­pearing.

As costs increase, “We’re basically trying to make do with less.”

It is no longer possible to just go about township roads business as they were done in the old days, either. Provincial regulations now call for track­ing everything from the amount of salt going into the sand mix, to how long it takes to get a pothole fixed. And there are guidelines for all those tasks, and the department has to pro­vide records to show it meets those standards.

“We’ve had to come up with an intricate salt management plan,” Elder said. “We’re in the third year of a five year plan.”

The goal is to reduce salt use by 20%, and he acknow­ledges that the county’s ex­peri­menting with salt alter­na­tives such as liquids is helping the township. In fact, even some sidewalks will be test sites for de-icing liquids this winter.

Trucks, too, are now all computerized. They can meas­ure how much salt and sand is used per lane kilometre. It used to be the operator would simply list the number of buckets of sand and salt. Those days are gone.

On top of that, road crews mix and load inside a dome, to protect the environment. Elder said the mix of salt to sand is now 3%, and, “We’ve achieved the 20%” reduction.

High technology

Trucks not only have com­puter systems to track salt and sand, Elder said the department is working towards all kinds of technology for better service de­livery.

Patrolling is mandatory. The province has stated how often each class of road has to be patrolled, winter and summer. For class three roads, which means roads with a speed limit of 80km/hour and 4,000 vehi­cles a day, it is once every seven days “and record it.”

He said, “Record keeping is just phenomenal these days.”

Traffic signs, for example, have to be checked every 30 days – all of them.

Elder said the department is hoping to get an electronic tablet that it can use to generate notes while patrolling, but, “in a perfect world we’d have an automatic computer. If there was a major defect, we could spit out a work order. Better service.”

Better service means better roads and, he and all officials hope, fewer accidents.

He noted that the depart­ment is already placing as much information in its global positioning systems as it can, and, eventually, the department will be able to overlay informa­tion so when, say, a street is rebuilt, there will be a map showing catch basins, and another one overlaying it to show all the signs on it.

Lawsuits a big problem

There was a time when someone hit a pot hole, lost a muffler, and simply replaced it. Or, someone tripped on a sidewalk, and shrugged it off to their own clumsiness, and went on their way.

Today, everybody sues, or at least considers it.

Since he has been Director of Public Works at the town­ship in 2000, Elder said there have been over 500 lawsuits, enquiries, or complaints that could have led to lawsuits. Currently there are 15 major legal actions the township is dealing with.

“A lot of those are ‘trip and fall’ and people think we have deep pockets,” Elder said.

He noted the policy manual states that if a pothole is three inches deep on a road with a speed limit of 80km/hour, the township has a week to fix it. That is one reason why town­ship officials always ask complainants if they reported a problem – when the submit bills for front end alignments.

Elder said he hands over complaints like those to adju­dicators. “If it goes to court, the judge decides.”

Snow removal

Elder said currently, the township attempts to treat all roads equally when it comes to snow removal, but that might be changing. He noted in the rural areas, the priorities are for school buses, and in urban centres, sidewalks leading to schools are the first to be cleared.

But, he said, perhaps the plows could be used more effi­ciently by plowing major thor­oughfares first, and leaving smaller side streets until the main routes are cleared.

The provincial manual stat­es that a side street with 3.5 inches of snow on it can be left for as long as 24 hours and still meet provincial require­ments.

Elder said some might not like the change in priorities, but some roads get only 100 vehi­cles a day, while others get thousands, and service is the ideal.

“We don’t want to decrease the level of service, but at some point in time, we’ve got to set the priorities,” he said.

Well trained work force

Gone are the days when high school dropouts could find themselves in a good paying job at the roads department.

Elder said all staff are con­tinually getting training on a wide variety of subjects, from computers, safety, air brakes, customer service, and how to deal with the public.

“It just goes on and on,” he said of that training. “We have a well trained staff, so we can provide a higher level of ser­vice.”

Staff are busy with other issues too, besides cleaning roads and catch basins. There is dead animal removal, clearing of fallen tree limbs, and re­mov­al of trees in poor condition.

Not only is the department concerned with its roads, but there are miles of sidewalks that need care, too. Elder said his department hopes to walk every sidewalk in the township before the end of the year, to set priorities for replacement, and, of course, there will be “a record” of that  work so the de­partment can set priorities for replacement.

He said hiring a company to do the replacement sidewalks will ensure standards are the same for all sidewalks, and everyone gets “the same level of service across the board.”

And, he said, the depart­ment will insist that if a street gets replaced, there will be a minimum of a sidewalk on one side of that road, with curb and gutter. He noted where there is no sidewalk and curbs there are more problems with potholes, and that means “high main­tenance costs.”

As for subdivisions, Elder said they will soon have to meet higher standards, and he admitted, “We’re feeling Tor­onto pressure.” He said many residents move from the big city to a pleasant rural area with trails, a river, safety in the streets, and other rural ameni­ties, “but they want what they had” for services in the city. “We have to provide that – at a reasonable cost.”

Better environment

The roads department, just as others in Centre Wellington, is keenly aware of envir­onmental issues. Elder noted that all committees are watched by the environmental advisory committee, and the township also works with Greenlands Centre Wellington and a host of provincial associations, includ­ing Good Roads “to be able to provide a better environment.”

He noted one area he is seeking improvement is the snow-dumping areas. He said the department is looking at a lagoon style set-up with pussy willows and cattails planted in it. Those plants are well known for their ability to absorb chemicals and contaminants from the ground. Everything they take up will not leave the site.

New works building

In 2004, Elder presented council with a proposal for a centralized works department shop. It would eliminate the current use of five different stations that are a remnant of the amalgamated munici­pali­ties.

But, he noted, council turned that down, and there are several councillors who will oppose that major expenditure, even though there are major benefits and even savings in a central location.

The township is also working to become one of the first in Canada to take steps to charge companies for telecommunication and utility companies for use of its land for burying cable. That way, the township knows who has buried what, where, and it can also ensure that the work is done to the township’s standards. In the past, there has been little control over those companies, but that is coming to an end.

Emergency planning

Every municipal depart­ment is involved in preparing for disasters that might never arrive. Elder’s is among those on the front line. It will have to close roads, make sure emergency services like fire, police, and ambulance can reach areas they need to reach.

“We have to be continually ready, continually trained, and right up to date on this,” he said. That means working a disas­ter, recovery, and rescue plan. The emergency can be just about anything from a tornado, which the department has ex­perience handling, to a health pandemic.

And, “That doesn’t take into account the future – trail and traffic routes – where the township’s going in the next 20 years. And we’re doing that, while we’re doing our regular work.”

Regular work includes bridge monitoring, painting cemetery fences, keeping park lawns mowed, collecting dead animals and removing dead tree limbs.

Elder has a staff of 30 people plus about 15 summer students to accomplish all that work.

“It always seems we’re never on top of things,” he admitted, but, “We have to be ready. I think we’re pretty efficient.”

Next week: Sewer and water.