(Editor's note: Parts of this editorial have been retracted, although the complete text remains here for reference purposes. Follow the link below for an explanation in the July 19 editorial, titled, "We were too hasty in blaming contractor.")
Officials from the state Department of Transportation had better hope Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn't pick this time of year for another stealth vacation in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
If his big black Cadillac Escalade gets stuck in the tar pit that is the repaving project between the two villages - especially if driving that 8-mile stretch of Route 86 takes him 80 minutes like it took our reporter Chris Morris Tuesday - he's likely to give DOT officials a serious dressing down, if not worse.
Such a scolding would be partially deserved, but most of the Sara-Placid Highway problems appear to be the fault of the contractor, N.J. Brunell and Son of Plattsburgh. That doesn't excuse the DOT, since it it is the department's responsibility to either do the job right or hire someone who will, but now that the contractor has pushed the work back until the worst time of year for it, and has been bad at communicating with the public and even with the DOT itself, there isn't much the department can do to make things better. It has to keep dancing with the date it brought to the ball.
The good news for the contractor and DOT is that many local people are patient. Mr. Morris reported Friday that most local people he talked to said their frustration was outweighed by their gratitude that the highway is finally being repaved. This stretch of road, arguably the busiest in the Adirondacks, has been in terrible shape for years, costing people a lot of money to repair their vehicles' suspension, tires and other parts whose life was shortened by the bumpy highway.
We're glad to hear these folks are so forgiving, but this project's shortcomings need attention so the DOT can make sure they don't happen again.
This job had been scheduled for last year but was postponed to this spring when Hurricane Irene changed the DOT's plans. But when spring came, the only news was that locals had started a formal petition for bike lanes on that road. (Side note: This was no surprise; people including the editorial writers of the Lake Placid News and Enterprise had advocated for at least 10 years for bike lanes here, which the DOT had steadily declined. That, and the DOT's decade of delay on the long-promised Lake Flower Avenue rebuild in Saranac Lake, have lost the department serious PR points with people around here.)
Still, even if the job wasn't done before Memorial Day, the DOT knew enough to schedule it for before school let out, when the roads are quieter. In late May the department announced a June 11 start date, but Brunell stalled, then worked a little, then took a couple of weeks off, then started up again in the second week of July, when there are so many cars on that road that delays are brutal and the negative economic impact is substantial. Fearing 30- to 90- minute waits, tourists in Lake Placid are almost certainly putting off visits to Tupper Lake's Wild Center or Saranac Lake's carousel and downtown shops. Going the other way, we know Saranac Lakers have skipped trips to Lake Placid for groceries and other errands.
It would be easier if there was good communication so people knew what to expect. More than once, DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen, in Albany, has given the public work schedule information that turned out to be wrong because the contractor had changed its plans without her knowledge.
The main thing motorists have to go on, other than word of mouth, is an electronic sign that announced work will go on from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. - but the company frequently starts in mid-morning and wraps up sometime in the mid-afternoon. (Some people suspect the project wouldn't drag out so long if the contractors worked longer hours.)
In the future, the DOT should consider requiring contractors to work at night when they repair busy roads.
You'd think companies would do their best work when they're hired by the public. For one thing, state contracts are valuable in the construction industry, with prevailing wage laws and the like. Also, these jobs for the public tend to be highly visible, so if the company screws it up, it affects more people potentially hurting the local economy - and the contractor's and state agency's reputations.
Nevertheless, people of the North Country have been let down by such contractors many times.
Remember the long-unfinished project last summer on state Route 3 west of Saranac Lake?
Along that same highway, remember the 2005 debacle in which thousands of live trees were cut for no good reason - it was supposed to be a dozen or so dead ones - and then it turned out this was illegal because many of them were outside the DOT right of way and into the state Forest Preserve? That would have been criminal if it wasn't a state job - and then they wasted the trees instead of letting people take them for firewood.
Remember the nightmares that resulted from the Saranac Lake Central School District capital building project of 1998?
These are cautionary tales.
It's also worth giving praise when everything works well - for example, the recent first phase of Saranac Lake's sidewalk replacement project. Village officials took responsibility for keeping downtown businesses, which were some of the most heavily affected parties, in constant contact through meetings and emails, and they kept the public regularly updated via this newspaper, other media, Twitter and the village website. And the sidewalk contractor, Steven E. Fuller Excavating of Keeseville, did what it said it would do, and apparently did solid work. Afterward, Fuller even sent a letter to the editor of this paper to thank the community for its co-operation.
In the same way, N.J. Brunell and Son's reputation depends on the quality of its work, job-site management and regard for its employer - in this case, the people of New York state.
Maybe the quality of the finished product will be good enough to redeem the company for its delays and confusion. We hope so.
And the reputation of the DOT? Well, it lifted its rating by rebuilding state Route 73 after Irene and replacing the Lake Champlain Bridge. We're also grateful to it for working with Tupper Lake to redesign its central intersection and, in general, for plowing our roads - although we wish it wouldn't use as much salt. But it still would be unlikely to win a prize for "Best State Agency," if the Enterprise's Best of the Mountains Readers Choice Awards had such a category.