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Editorial: Public works, then and now

In Amherst, a new paving technique is saving on energy and reducing inconvenience to travelers. That’s the shape of public works in 2012 — a search for new technologies that can deliver the old demand of smooth roads. Not far away in West Pelham, an old technology that once aided local commerce was retired last month.

Both projects say something about how we manage our public spaces. An approach to public works that made sense yesterday will need a fresh look tomorrow.

It wasn’t yesterday that a dam halted normal water flow on Amethyst Brook in West Pelham. It was 1820. Stones were placed into the waterway to create a pond able to power a factory that made rods for fly fishing. Way back when, the Bartlett Fishrod Factory produced most of the rods used in the country.

In recent weeks, after years of preparation, heavy equipment has taken the dam out, restoring the natural water flow after 192 years.

This small but durable structure has received outsized attention. Dams have restricted flows on New England rivers and streams for centuries. Over time, they changed fish migration patterns and fish populations, so wildlife biologists are excited to see the clock roll back on Amethyst Brook. Partners in the dam removal include the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, Clean Water Action and the Fish America Foundation.

Though it lasted a long time, the West Pelham dam had been failing and the property’s owner, HRD Press, was under pressure from the state to do something about it for safety reasons.

Without that, it’s unlikely anything would have happened here because of the costs involved.

Residents of Pelham were able, along the way, to comment on the removal of a landmark, albeit one that continues to restrict fish populations and in that way diminish the environment. The town’s Historical Commission is holding on to a remnant of the dam to remind people what stood here and why, in another age. Even after the fishrod factory closed, the dam generated power for other manufacturing, including machine tools, into the 1930s.

We like that a monument will remain, because the old dam represents a long era of business success and practicality in New England.

A new kind of success has been rolling along North Pleasant Street in Amherst, where a paving contractor from Illinois is using a newfangled device to resurface area roads. The device heats damaged pavement it passes over to 400 degrees, lifts it out, mixes it with fresh liquified asphalt and puts it right back down. Its name is a mouthful — Recycled Hot Emulsified Asphalt Treatment.

The process saves on hauling, because the old road surface isn’t “milled” and taken away. That enables the work to reduce energy use by a third, according to contractor Gallagher Asphalt of Thornton, Ill. By not having so many trucks coming and going, producing greenhouse gases, the system also speeds work and relieves traffic congestion. The ReHeat process, as it is also known, has its limits. For obvious reasons, it can only be used on projects that do not involve road widening.

We’re told public works officials from other Valley towns have been stopping by to watch. Amherst’s public works chief, Guilford Mooring, says he wants to see how the new pavement holds up over its first winter, but is encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

Towns like Amherst are falling behind on road repairs because of their cost. It is refreshing to see a delayed and costly public works project embrace the future.

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