- April 25, 2018
Try this experiment. Take a white sheet of paper and put a black dot in the middle and ask ten different people what they see. Odds are, almost everyone will say, “I see a black dot.” Yet, that dot only takes about one percent or less of the white space — so why don’t people say, “I see a white sheet of paper with a small black dot on it.” Now, substitute the word “dot” for PennDOT, and the same phenomenon takes place. Human nature focuses on the negative and not the positive.
Truth be told, the name “PennDOT” does not exactly cause warm and fuzzy feelings for most people, especially those who spend more than a fair share of their time on our local highways. Yet, the irony is that the reason why we can spend so much time on our highways and travel as freely and easily as we do is because of the occasional inconvenience that invariably arises from the work of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, PennDOT. Divided up into eleven different PennDOT districts, the headquarters of District 3 is in Montoursville. There are some extremely dedicated and hard working people working there; among them is the District Municipal Services Supervisor, Donald Free.
Don Free is a local guy, growing up in Loyalsock and graduating from Loyalsock Township High School in 1983. He went to Williamsport Area Community College to study Civil Engineering, pursuing his desire to build and fix bridges. Upon graduating, this is exactly what he did, working with a contractor in doing all kinds of work on bridges, from inspection to actual construction. In 1988, he got the opportunity to work for PennDOT, primarily focused on construction, but his bridge experience quickly came in handy. He was doing the work he loved.
For the past thirty years, Don Free has been the ultimate road warrior; the ‘go to’ guy when a municipality needs some advice or direction on fixing, repairing, or improving a roadway. The magnitude of his responsibility is mind-boggling. Every municipality has a Municipal Services Representative assigned to them. There are 52 individual municipalities in Lycoming County, and District 3 covers nine counties — some 279 different municipal entities altogether — and the guy that is there to answer the road questions for all these boroughs, townships, city and county itself, is Don Free.
Don Free heads up a team consisting of him and three others, and he gives his colleagues very high praise. For this bunch, there are no two days alike. One township had a road where accidents consistently occurred around a bend in the road, with drivers always hitting the same tree! Don came out and inspected the road, and realized that it was centrifugal force that was causing the accidents, especially in bad weather where traction was poor. His team helped the township redesign that section of the road and the problem was solved. Another township had a section of road with a high occurrence of accidents in one spot. He went out and looked at the elevation of the road, site distance, the condition of the highway, and finally identified the problem as a need for better signage. Don Free is not a “one size fits all” kind of consultant.
Don and his team do much more. For example, bridge inspections. The nine counties in District 3 (Tioga, Bradford, Sullivan, Montour, Columbia, Northumberland, Snyder, Union as well as Lycoming) are mostly rural, and this means lots and lots of small bridges. The state requires bridge inspections be conducted annually, but not those under 20 feet. Yet, the gas industry used these small bridges heavily, and it was taking a toll. Don and his team “inventoried” these bridges, and then passed on the information to the local municipalities so they could be aware of these small bridges condition.
These small municipalities must do the same paperwork as the large ones when it comes to getting their state funds for road maintenance (known as “liquid fuels” tax money), and if these forms are not filled out correctly, no money comes from Harrisburg. Again, Don and his bunch do everything to help to make sure these forms are done right. Not just liquid fuels reports, they also are on hand when flooding requires interaction with PEMA and FEMA to do damage estimates. And they get good results.
So, the next time a flagger stops you on a highway because two lanes must be joined into one so construction can get done, instead of grumbling, think of the black dot on the white sheet of paper. Whisper a little “thank you” to people like Don Free, who have dedicated their lives to ensuring that Pennsylvania highways are safe, and will remain that way.