February 7, 2008

Retiring Road Boss Leaves Behind Legacy of Quality Bridge System

After 31 years with Scotland County, retiring road boss John Wheeler leaves behind a legacy of bridges that have less years of service to the community than he did.

Wheeler was honored with a retirement celebration at the Scotland County Courthouse on January 31st attended by friends, family, coworkers, county officials and representatives from the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“That was quite a surprise,” Wheeler admitted after being lured up to the courthouse under the guise of a meeting with FEMA officials to discuss funding to replace road rock lost to storm flooding.

MoDOT’s Skip Wilson addressed the gathering offering some amazing numbers from Wheelers tenure as the county’s road crew leader.

Of the county’s total of 162 bridges, 131 have been built since 1981, a figure that represents 81-percent of the total number of crossings a figure MoDOT officials simply described as incredible. The state average over that same time span is just 55 percent of bridges less than 20 years old.

“I definitely can’t take all of the credit for that,” Wheeler told the gathering. “I have worked with lots of good people both on the road crew and up here as county officials.”

The program has been very aggressive the past decade during which more than half of the counties bridges (88) have been built, compared to a statewide average of 27 percent.

The program has helped Scotland County receive excellent grades on MoDOT’s bridge reviews, with 83-percent of the county’s bridges ranked as non-deficient compared to the state average of 67-percent.

Those structures have come a long way during Wheeler’s 31 years.

“When I started out we were building wooden bridges on top of wooden pilings,” he said. “Now you have cement bridges atop steel pilings.”

In between the county, along with numerous others across the state, experimented with the use of railroad flatbed freight cars as bridge decks.

Wilson shared Wheeler’s feelings on that process when he explained a conversation the MoDOT rep had with the road boss.

“When the county finally got rid of the last one of the bridge decks, John told me he was ready to send all of those freight cars on down the tracks where they belonged.”

Of course those old bridge decks were a lot easier to remove than the 80’ x 14’ bridge deck that Wheeler and his crew relocated from one side of the county to the other.

“I still have some pictures from that deal,” Wheeler said. “We fabricated a trailer out of I-beams on tandem wheels from an old unit and then we welded a fifth wheel hitch on it and pulled it almost 15 miles behind a tractor to where we reinstalled the bridge,” Wheeler said.

The water crossings aren’t the only thing Wheeler has seen change during his tenure. He praises the county’s investment in the appropriate equipment to allow roads to be built and maintained.

“When I started we had three old maintainers and an even older bulldozer,” he said. “We spent more on maintenance each year than we did on the lease payment we received each year when we got when we bought the newer machinery.”

More recently some of the changes haven’t been for the good. Wheeler said material costs for the road department have skyrocketed, particularly steel pipe and road rock.

But those expenditures at least have measurable dividends. Wheeler noted that some other expensive work left little to show constituents.

He noted that snow removal is costly, with the county’s maintainers and other equipment burning up large amounts of fuel to move snow that is gone with the first warm spell.

“That’s a lot of work that just melts away,” Wheeler said.

With one of the state’s best bridge systems left behind to remind motorists of his tenure, Wheeler won’t have to worry about his legacy doing the same.

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