NORWALK, Conn. – The word “emergency” applies to only one of the two incidents that have been drawing negative attention to the Department of Public Works, DPW Director Hal Alvord said.
• “We’re doing the Main and Wall thing, I want to say, on an emergency basis,” Alvord said, in reference to a traffic signal pole that corroded from within and collapsed. “It’s taking longer than I would like.”
• “People were talking about crisis or emergency, and being pushed into a corner,” Alvord said in reference to the Common Council’s authorization last week of a new radio system for the department. “We have never used the word crisis. We have never used the word emergency. We said, ‘Look, now that we’re here, we could make it through another season with hand-held radios, we can do it, it’s not efficient but we can do it, but our preference would be to have the new radio systems in before the snow season that’s coming up.’ Now that we have the PO (purchase order) we should be able to do that.”
The surprise downing of a pole
The signal pole at the corner of Wall and Main Streets fell on July 12, dropping nine traffic signals onto the intersection. There was no sign of an accident, Norwalk Police said.
Alvord said Friday that a consultant will be hired to check for corrosion in signal poles, though he didn’t know when. While he said speed is of the essence in the effort to put up new lights, there have been challenges.
There were three or four poles at the Public Works Center, salvaged as usable in the ongoing traffic light replacement project, but none of them fit the base at Main and Wall, Alvord said, explaining again that Norwalk’s equipment was not standardized in the past.
Engineers had thought that they would put up a wooden pole in Klondike Park, a 270-square-foot triangular plot owned by the First Taxing District at the intersection of Main and Wall, he said. This would have satisfied a desire not to put the pole in the same place as the old one – and make things easier when the intersection gets a permanent signal in the replacement program under way. But the park turned out to be solid rock, he said.
Engineers have identified a new location, a spot in the sidewalk, but the process is stalled until it can be ascertained that there are no utilities under the sidewalk.
Don’t expect the same old configuration when the temporary lights are installed, he said. DPW is putting up six lights, two in each direction, he said.
Engineers did test the other poles in the intersection, he said. A company that uses sound waves to check for corrosion will be hired to look at other poles in the city, but he doesn’t know when, he said.
That’s a question of manpower, he said. The department’s only traffic analyst has been tied up supervising the utility installation at the Waypointe development on West Avenue, and the department’s only traffic engineer has been tied up in the traffic signal light upgrade project, he said.
Last week, council members expressed frustration that the $132,594 purchase of a high-band radio system from Northeastern Communications Inc. had not gone through the capital budget process. Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) voted with four Democrats against the purchase and called it a “crisis” that could have been avoided.
“The ball was dropped and it was dropped badly. We were backed into a corner because we did need the radio system,” Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said. “There are other related budget issues about things that were requested, that were not needed as badly as we thought when we approved the budget because the money was not spent on those items, but that’s a side issue.”
Kimmel later explained, “The money for the radios was taken from a ‘related’ project that was requested in the capital budget. Now, apparently that project will not be funded this year. That’s why the $132,000 did not come out of contingency, and because the earlier approved project was allegedly ‘related’ to the radios, the money did not have go through the relatively rigorous and time consuming process required when capital funds are transferred from one project to another.”
Alvord said there is flexibility built into DPW’s capital budget to allow for unforeseen replacement needs. The radio is going in the “fleet replacement” line of the capital budget, he said.
“We didn’t realize that the repair parts that we needed for our low band radio were no longer available until our capital budget request was already submitted,” he said.
It would have been “months and months and months” to get a new radio system if it had gone through the regular bidding process, he said.
“We didn’t go out to bid for a couple of reasons,” Alvord said. “One is the radio system we proposed to purchase is in the state contract. It’s always been the practice that if it’s in the state contract, we could purchase from the state contract. The assumption was the state got the best deal and so we could save the time and effort of putting together an RFP or bid package by working off the state contract.”
Northeastern Communications did the preliminary work that a consultant would have done at the bargain rate of $5,000, he said.
“They developed a coverage plan and did field testing to make sure it was going to work,” Alvord said. “… My personal opinion is he undervalued his services, because he knows the city very well.”
DPW lost its radio system during Superstorm Sandy because its repeater station was mounted at West Rocks School where there is no backup generator, Alvord said. The repeater station will be at a pumping station, where a generator kicks in automatically when there is a power outage, he said.
“If we do get in the posture where we do have a hurricane in September/October/November, we actually have a repeater station that’s going to stay in operation if the power goes out,” Alvord said. “Then our radio system will work through the response and recovery process as well.”