Rough Roads: Part 3, Locals See A Losing Battle

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(Host) Eighty percent of Vermont’s roads are not maintained by the state. They’re the responsibility of the towns.

Town road crews rarely get compliments about a well maintained road, but they get an earful if snow, mud or potholes are slowing the morning commute.

In part three of our series, Rough Roads, VPR’s Steve Zind spent time embedded with one road crew on the front lines of the battle to maintain town highways.

(Overhead door sound)
(Worker) “Want the tailgate down?
(Worker) Probably.”
(Garage sounds)

(Zind) Help wanted. Must have excellent mechanical skills and be able to work long hours. The ability to smile while being bawled out by hostile taxpayers is a plus. No winter vacation, starting pay – about ten dollars an hour with the opportunity for plenty of overtime.

(Truck starts, door slams)

(Zind) That pretty much sums up the qualifications for a job on one of Vermont’s town road crews. The work isn’t for everyone, but Doug Armstrong enjoys it.

(Armstrong) “Yea, physical work. It’s definitely a lot better than doing a sit-down job all the time. When I go home at night I like to be aching. You know you’ve done something.”

(Zind) Armstrong is one of three men who work at the Randolph Village garage. His crew is responsible for the downtown Randolph business district and the surrounding residential area.

(Shoveling sounds)

(Zind) This morning, they’re out filling a hole where the pavement was dug up to repair a water main.

They also want to check a few problems created by the weekend’s heavy rains.

(Worker) “We’re going to go up and check the hospital storm drains.”

(Zind) A road crew’s job is tied to the weather. The recent rains have left the town gravel pit under water, and its too cool to use asphalt, so the repairs there were planned for today are on hold. A rented street sweeper was supposed to be delivered today, but so far there’s no sign of it.

The crew still has plenty to do, including small repairs and moving snow plows and winter equipment out of the garage.

(Worker) “Watch your fingers.”

(Zind) There’s an art to moving a big town truck a fraction of an inch while a co-worker stands in front of it and hitches on a piece of equipment. Crew member Dan Messier says the three men work well together.

(Messier) “You get pretty close to the guys you work with. They’re always here, especially in the winter. You’re here more than you’re at home.”

(Zind) At twenty-two Messier is the youngest of the crew. He’s a little on the quiet side. Doug Armstrong, who’s the oldest, is the calm center of the group.

(Whistling, talking)

(Zind) The third member is Jerald Kinney. With eight years on the job, Kinney has been around the longest. He keeps up a steady banter making jokes, airing gripes, singing and whistling as he works.

When the rented street sweeper finally arrives, Kinney’s the first to jump in to see how the unfamiliar machine works.

(Kinney) “Right side sweep controls, left side sweep controls. See, that isn’t so hard to figure out.”

(Machine starts – laughter)

(Zind) From the perspective of these men whose job it is to keep Randolph’s roads in shape, there’s always work to be done, but they don’t think they’re fighting a losing battle.

Kinney says he’s been accosted by lots of unhappy drivers over the years.

He says it’s not that the roads are worse, but that expectations are higher – especially in the winter. He says that’s because so many people who’ve moved to Vermont expect their back road to be as well maintained as a city street.

(Kinney) “They don’t understand the scope of what the road crew covers and tries to maintain in the winter. They know that they need to go out and get that loaf of bread and they’ve got to go now and, mister, their road better be plowed and it better be salted. I think I’ve been called every name in the book and a few that somebody invented.”

(Zind) Kinney, Armstrong and Messier work five ten-hour days, with two short breaks and a half hour for lunch. When there’s a load of hot asphalt to be spread they may have to skip lunch and the breaks.

If there’s a snowstorm, they plow until they’re finished. Messier says he once worked for 31 hours straight. That’s a lot of overtime pay, but Kinney says what’s more important is the satisfaction he gets from the job.

(Kinney) “That’s what really calls into a highway guy, is that it’s just the idea that what I did today made a difference to somebody. It’s like when I’m plowing roads, half the time what keeps you going when you’re tired is that my wife and daughter are driving these roads.”

(Zind) Kinney, Armstrong and Messier all say it’s nice to earn overtime pay, but the long hours keep them away from their families.

In spite of the extra pay, each of them works a second, part-time job to help pay the bills.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Randolph.

Note: Tomorrow in our series, VPR’s Susan Keese looks at a grass-roots effort to take the pressure off Vermont’s highway infrastructure – “ride-sharing.”

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