Every year, the American Public Works Association (APWA) names 10 leaders in public service and public works as their “Leaders of the Year.” These individuals are the public and private employees that have dedicated their careers in the service of their government and its constituents, and that have accomplished amazing things in the pursuit of providing better, more efficient and more effective services to citizens.
One of the public works leaders being honored this year is Richard “Chip” Barrett PWLF, the Superintendent of the Westford, MA Highway Department. Chip has been a lifelong public servant, having served the community as a heavy equipment operator, water commissioner, patrolman and firefighter/EMT before taking over the Westford Highway Department. While in that position, he spearheaded the implementation of exciting and innovative programs that have helped to improve his community and improve operations within the department.
We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Chip to discuss the mission of the Highway Department, how he got to be Superintendent and what changes and programs that he’s put in place since taking over. We also talked about how Westford is changing, creating new challenges, while also creating new opportunities to implement technology and innovate.
Here is what Chip had to say:
GovDesignHub: Can you tell our readers about the Westford Highway Department? What is the department’s mission? What are some of its largest challenges? What challenges does it face that other highway departments might not?
Chip Barrett: I’ve been Superintendent since 1991, and – in that time – the Highway Department has been responsible for all facets of public works for Westford other than the Water Department operations. So, we’ve managed the highways, the cemeteries, the parks, engineering and so forth.
We also take care of all of the bridges – all 10 in our municipality – and take care of five or six dams. Over my career, we’ve replaced three or four bridges and we’re working on a couple more bridges right now.
Westford is located about 32 miles northwest of the city of Boston. We’re right up along the New Hampshire border. Westford is about 31 square miles. Within those 31 miles, I have about 150 miles of road that we take care of.
Our topography in Westford is the beginning of the foothills as you go west into Massachusetts, and the geography presents some unique challenges, especially with weather forecasting. Our snowfall is usually quite a bit more than Boston because we’re at a higher elevation, plus we have the influence of the ocean that you see across much of New England.
One of the unique things about Westford is the explosion that it’s experienced in the last 30 years. I’ve seen the size of the Highway Department responsibilities more then double. We’ve gone from 79 miles of road to well over 150 now, which is a unique challenge. We have quite a few new subdivisions in town. We are very rural out here – very spread out – and we have a lot of elevation differences thanks to the foothills.
GovDesignHub: What is your background? How did you get to where you are with the Highway Department?
Chip Barrett: I always wanted to be in public safety, actually. My dream was – at one time – to become a career firefighter. Unfortunately, the town was so small and the prospects of becoming a fulltime fire department just weren’t there. So, when I graduated high school, I went to college to study Fire Science.
My father had passed on, so I moved back home to help my mother out and got a job in the Highway Department. I was a heavy equipment operator for three years. At the same time, I was also an on-call firefighter. Back then, Westford was a small rural town and the fire department was staffed by stations of part timers – no full timers.
In 1981, I started a company called R.J. Barrett Company, which started doing storm water maintenance work. We had trucks that cleaned out storm drains and flushed lines. I continued that up until 1991 full time, when I became the Highway Superintendent. At the same time, I was also a patrolman – again, as a part-timer. The town had some full-timers but needed a compliment of part-timers because of the size of the town at the time.
I became the Highway Superintendent in 1991, taking over for the previous Highway Superintendent that had the seat for the 35 years before that. When I took the job, I brought my experience from running a business into the town and applied all the things that I learned from all the other highway departments that I had serviced through my business. This enabled me to take a lot of the good ideas that worked in other departments and bring them into Westford as it was growing.
GovDesignHub: What were some of the best practices that you brought with you? What were some of the changes that you made right away when you took the job?
Chip Barrett: When I came in, we started an engineering department. We started a pavement management program which involved starting to digitize our files and put everything we had on paper into computers. And we started the first GIS system back in the late 90s as part of our pavement management system.
When I came in, we did a complete town-wide inventory of all of our infrastructure – everything from what type of lines were on the road, to the type of guard rail, to the type of curbing, type of side walk, and the condition of everything. That was the basis of our inventory and the basis for the GIS system. We also gave all the infrastructure a rating. This allowed us to implement a complete asset management system which, I think, was at forefront of what was going on in Highway Departments at the time.
GovDesignHub: How have you utilized new technologies on behalf of the Department? What have these technologies enabled you to do for Westford?
Chip Barrett: Back in the early 90s, when we first put the asset system into place, one of the things that I implemented was to actually videotape all of our streets. And at that time, there was really no machine or camera for that operation other than the type of cameras that we had in the police cruisers.
We worked with a consulting company that found and purchased a camera that would take a snapshot of the street every 50 feet. This made us the first municipality in New England to actually incorporate visual documentation of our infrastructure and work it into our inventory.
Fast forward to today and all of our supervisor’s trucks are equipped with lap top computers and mounted with cameras that allow them to videotape while they’re out doing public works activities and snow removal. This enables us to do a complete inventory of our streets each year. That’s a great tool, and it’s integrated into our GIS system. Using that system, we can click on a street – any portion of a road – and see video and images of that street.
We have also entered into the world of drones, which I feel is going to be a great asset for public works. Not only can we share our drones with our other municipal partners – police and fire and water in town – we can use it for evaluating after a storm. We just had a wind shear come through and did quite a bit of damage and were able to evaluate that damage with drones. We can also evaluate our forests. We can go out into our swamps and evaluate our beaver dams. They’re a great tool and we’re training our engineers and highway supervisors on using them .
We’re also starting to use is GPS for cutting down on our usage of winter chemicals. Our newest spreaders are all GPS equipped. Between using the GPS-enabled ground speed controls and introducing liquids to our deicing chemicals, we saw a one-third reduction in salt use. Fast forward to today and our ground speed controls are now all being converted over to GPS which is much more accurate than using the electronics in the truck. We’re using it for the complete calibration of what’s been put down.
GovDesignHub: You also presided over the construction of a new Highway Department facility. What was that process like? What makes that facility unique and innovative?
Chip Barrett: Back in the early 2000s, a lot of money was being put into water and sewer systems. The town of Westford was fortunate to be in the position that they needed a new facility when the funding was available. We used those funds to install a 71,000 square foot facility which is very much at the forefront of technology and kind of the showplace for other DPWs looking to start building as they get funds for highway facilities.
As I said, the facility is 71,000 square feet, and we took advantage of using radiant heat, so all of our floors are heated through the cement floors. The complete facility encompasses cranes that move back and forth. It actually has a drive-through, automated vehicle wash. bunk rooms for the employees that work around the clock And, utilizing my past public safety knowledge, I was able to incorporate a complete secondary radio center so we could communicate with all state agencies and all area Highway Departments and public safety organizations from this location – it’s like a command center.
Since we are located so high and there is such a difference in elevation – we’re actually 20 feet above the water tanks in town – we actually buried 56,000 gallons of water in the floor of the garage and in a cistern for future use if we needed clean water and fire protection. The building was also built into a granite face and we take advantage of the cooling and heating effects of being partially earth-sheltered. We also have a helicopter pad here that is used by the state police and medevac helicopters if necessary, if they’re in the area.
GovDesignHub: What problems did you face when building this new facility?
Chip Barrett: One of the major problems of building any DPW facility is your neighbors. People don’t want it in their backyard. The town of Westford put together a highway siting committee. We looked at all available properties in town and actually out of the 32 square miles they really came up with nothing.
We put together a second committee, I added an architect, a member of the board of Selectmen, somebody from the finance committee, someone from the Board of Health, a member of the Conservation Commission and planning board, local businessmen.. That committee was able to put our heads together and come up with this idea of purchasing land that taxes hadn’t been paid on.
We were able to find this piece of property that was actually 44 acres in tax title – people hadn’t paid their taxes on it since the seventies. We were able to negotiate a very good price on this and recoup our tax money. It was quite a challenge, but,, the building actually came in at half a million dollars under budget.
GovDesignHub: What are the department’s technology and IT plans and priorities for the rest of the year? Over the next few years? What new solutions – if any – are being considered for investment and implementation?
Chip Barrett: I think the biggest thing moving forward is the use of the pavement management system because of the sheer amount of roads that we’ve added in the last 30 years. One year, the town actually accepted 22 miles of roads in one meeting. All that infrastructure is starting to age.
Also, we went from more of a rural farming community to a very desirable bedroom community outside of Boston. That growth had a large and immediate impact on police, fire and infrastructure resources. As the town grew both in the commercial base and in the residential base, the needs for police, fire and schools were immediate.
One of the chief challenges I’m facing is that my new infrastructure that is maturing, is at the point that it needs to be added to the available funds that are out there, and you know maintaining municipal infrastructure is not cheap by any means. This much infrastructure is all maturing at the sametime, along with the existing which was never meant to handle this type of growth.
So, I need to use the best technology out there, as far as engineering goes, as far as pavement management programs go, as far as new techniques in preserving infrastructure go. We’ve been doing a lot of that over the years, but it’s more important as we move forward to use as many different tools in the tool box – other than just using the same old technologies and techniques. It can’t just be, “that’s the way we used to do it.”