Minivan on its nose in excavation site raises questions that need answers

— Photo from Joel Willsey

Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons gave this photograph to Councilman Joel Willsey, Willsey writes, soon after a minivan plunged into an excavated site on Bridge Road.

To the Editor:

In the interest of public safety and transparency, I am writing today to illustrate what is an example, in my opinion, of the maladministration of the Berne Highway Department. Such maladministration puts the lives of the traveling public at unnecessary risk.

As many are aware, I have been very critical of the conduct of the Berne superintendent of highways since 2015 when, as a resident, I became aware that his work-zone safety practices were, in my opinion, unacceptably dangerous and inconsistent with the guidance of the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.”

We are very fortunate to have very low traffic volumes on Berne highways. That makes it less likely that a serious incident will occur. But eventually dangerous work-zone practices result in incidents and someone could lose their life or be very seriously injured and the incident of Aug. 1, 2019 should be a wake-up call.

I want to make it clear that I have more than a casual understanding of acceptable work-zone practices.  I recently retired from the New York State Department of Transportation where I was a project designer for decades.

I first worked as a drafter in transportation projects in 1983 and, after a series of promotions, became a principal engineering technician in 1989 when I became the designer of a project on Route 23 in Cairo. After my promotion to Civil Engineer One, I was the designer of record of many DOT projects beginning in the early ’90s and continuing through 2014.

Some were significant projects like the Dunn Bridge rehabilitation and some were bridge replacement projects like the Malta Avenue bridges over Interstate 87. My last project was the Northway Exit 15 rehabilitation. My projects impacted everything from local rural roads to interstates.   

I then worked as an assistant engineer in the Quality Control unit, reviewing design-approval documents and contract plans for both state and local projects until my recent retirement in July.

Again, I provide this background to illustrate that I am more than casually familiar with acceptable work-zone safety practices. I can now share this background publicly without the implication that I represent the Department of Transportation.

On Aug. 1, a work-zone incident occurred in Berne that could have resulted in fatalities. Supervisor [Sean] Lyons immediately notified me and provided me with the photograph attached.

Based on the very limited information I have been provided by the Berne Highway Department (despite specific requests), I see indications that this temporary traffic-control plan was seriously flawed in its design and its implementation.

As a result, we had a minivan standing on its nose in a deep excavation. It appears there were no flaggers and no barricades at the excavation.

The superintendent of highways was quick to point out in an email that the driver went past a “Road Closed” sign to get to the excavation site. 

It is common practice for drivers to proceed past “Road Closed” signs. Road-closed signs are typically erected at intersections, but people still need access to and from property beyond. I provide an example photo of a delivery truck driving past a “Road Closed” sign last week on Stage Road.

The actual work site, where the danger exists, is where the traveling public needs to be stopped with flaggers or barricades and signs. It certainly appears this did not happen in Berne on Aug. 1.

I think a lot of questions need answers: Was the superintendent on his way to his political job in Albany at the time of this incident? Did he visit the work site that morning? Were there barricades at the excavation? Were there flaggers on site at the time? Did the work begin before these safety measures were in place? Exactly what signs were used and where?

Clearly, the undercarriage of this van impacted the pavement at the edge of the excavation and the fuel tank could have been compromised.

Imagine trying to get children, strapped into child safety seats, out of a van standing on its nose with a raging fire beneath. Imagine a worker in the excavation where that van came to rest. If any combination of these very plausible scenarios, or just one took place, Berne would be in the national news and our insurance rates would skyrocket.

I think this incident should be investigated by professionals in the interest of protecting the traveling public from unnecessary risk in the town of Berne. Safety should be our first priority.

Joel Willsey

Berne Town Board

Editor’s note: See related story.

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