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We were too hasty in blaming contractor

July 19, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

After learning more about the details of the Sara-Placid Highway repaving contract, we now think we placed too much blame on contractor N.J. Brunell and Son in our editorial Saturday, titled "Room for improvement in repaving project."

We stand by most of the editorial - there is obviously room for improvement when people are stuck in traffic for up to 80 minutes at a time - but not the part in which we said "most of the Sara-Placid Highway problems appear to be the fault of the contractor, N.J. Brunell and Son of Plattsburgh."

We now know that Brunell isn't in charge of the job. The state Department of Transportation is, and it hired Brunell to help provide materials, equipment and workers. The problems are the state agency's responsibility, even if they may not entirely be its fault. (The circumstances play a part, too. Once the work was delayed until July, things were bound to get messy on that busy, almost detour-less stretch of road.)

We must retract saying that it was Brunell that stalled until the busiest part of the summer. The delays, we've since learned, began with another contractor hired to mill up the old road surface. That job was supposed to be finished by mid to late May but wasn't done until late June. We can't say exactly why; we don't know all the details.

We also regret blaming Brunell for the public communication problem, which is also the DOT's responsibility. The electronic signs, which said work would happen from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. even though it actually was done in a much shorter daily time span, have been unhelpful to people trying to plan their trips around the construction. The reason for the shorter days is that overtime pay wasn't part of the deal (workers still get straight time after eight hours in a day), but since this was part of the plan, it could have also been part of the signage. For example, the sign could have said 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (leaving a little flexibility for breaks).

Contrast the Sara-Placid Highway job with the quick and smooth repaving of a different section of state Route 86, from Saranac Lake northwest to Donnelly's Corners. Brunell was fully contracted to do that job, and, given free rein, the company did fine, efficient work.

This is not to make a blanket statement that businesses do better work than government. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don't. Locally, we've seen examples of both. DOT has done good work on its own, too.

Sometimes, hybrid projects like this can get messy. That's understandable, and a lesson for next time.

Here are some other lessons:

-The obvious: Timing and communication are important in highway projects.

-Don't underestimate the Sara-Placid Highway. It's busy, it's essential, and it needs to be done right or it can blow up on you. The DOT still has a lot of work to do on it to satisfy local needs, including bike lanes and the long-postponed reconstruction of the Lake Flower Avenue portion in Saranac Lake.

-And finally, for us editorial writers, don't be so quick to assign blame.



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