Concord city engineer leads efforts to overhaul Main Street
Ed Roberge poses for a portrait on Main Street; November 30, 2012. As the city engineer of Concord, Roberge has been a large help to the Main Street redesign project. (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Those words from Concord City Engineer Ed Roberge drew applause and laughter from an advisory committee last month, as its members agreed on a proposal that gives Roberge the power and general guidelines to redesign Main Street.
Roberge, a self-described “community builder,” is leading a team to engineer the city’s Main Street overhaul. After two months of listening to committee members, answering questions and explaining traffic models, he now has 34 weeks to work with private consultants and finalize a plan that will transform 12 blocks of downtown Concord.
“All of the details are in Ed’s head,” at-large City Councilor and advisory committee member Dan St. Hilaire assured other councilors last week as they raised questions about the $7.85 million project.
“Boy, my head’s going to explode one of these days,” Roberge joked last week in his office on the third floor of City Hall. But for each of his projects, no matter how big or small, he tries “to make sure that I hear the folks and I address all their concerns.”
Whether he’s describing complex traffic modeling for Main Street, his team’s victory in the Black Ice Pond Hockey Championship or his family’s Tuesday night bowling league, Roberge speaks with the same, steady tone of voice.
“He doesn’t speak ‘engineer-ese’ – he can translate it into English,” said Concord Developer Steve Duprey, who served as chairman of the Main Street advisory committee and works
with the city’s engineering department for his private development projects.
Roberge said his family moved around while he was growing up as a “military brat,” before settling in New Hampshire in the 1970s. The 49-year-old has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Northeastern University and joined Concord’s staff in 1990. He worked as a technician and associate engineer until 1999, when he left City Hall to start his own firm. As a one-man consulting company, he played a role in engineering Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Detroit’s Ford Field and seating designs for the 2005 NCAA men’s basketball tournament in St. Louis.
While private consulting could be more profitable than work in the public sector, it also demanded more time and travel away from his wife and two children in Bow.
In 2005, he received a phone call from City Hall asking him to return as head engineer. Martha Drukker, who is now associate city engineer, had announced in 2003 that she was stepping down after four years because she did not pass a required licensing exam. Two city engineers after Drukker stayed for less than a year.
“When I left in ’99, it was really for that mindset: ‘You know, I’m going to go out and make money,’ ” Roberge said. “. . . Really the main reason why I returned is what I keep saying: I consider myself a community builder, and that allows me to work on a lot of different areas. You know, I’m not in a shop that I’m focused on storm water utilities or building nuclear power plants and that’s all you do. Here, we see everything in the public arena like this.”
In 2005, Roberge estimated, the engineering department contracted out 80 percent of its work to private consultants. Now, the 17-person department manages all construction and inspections internally, along with about 70 percent of its own design work.
After the first two phases of the multi-year Route 3 reconstruction project, Roberge decided “we can do better” than a private company. He designed the third and fourth phases, and is currently planning a fifth phase through the center of Penacook.
“He is by far the best city engineer that I’ve ever worked with,” said Deputy City Manager for Development Carlos Baia. “He just has . . . that ability to communicate that is something that is not necessarily common in engineering.”
Roberge acknowledges that his projects aren’t always popular: Construction is disruptive, and change can be difficult. After the city council voted against a roundabout at the intersection of Liberty, Auburn and Centre streets in 2006, Roberge returned with a slightly different design in 2007 that addressed residents’ concerns and was approved by a close vote.
“The thing I value about Ed is he’ll give you his professional opinion on a project,” St. Hilaire said. “And then he’ll let the council decide and accept that decision and move forward accordingly. So he doesn’t take things personally.”
Roberge said he spends time addressing residents’ concerns because the city’s engineers “don’t want to do anything in a vacuum.” During construction along Route 3, he found a large tree in one yard that he thought could die when crews dug into the road and sidewalk. When he approached the homeowner and asked if she wanted the city to remove the tree, she began to cry.
“I thought she really . . . was attached to the tree for some reason,” he said. “. . . And she said, ‘You know, nobody has ever come up to me to ask me what I thought, and I really don’t have the wherewithal to take care of the leaves that fall from the tree anymore so you removing the tree is a big service to us.’ And she came over and hugged me.”
Redesigning Main Street is one of 26 projects on the engineering department’s list. But it’s a “major legacy project,” Roberge said, and a chance to create “probably the best downtown – capital downtown – in this country.”
He wasn’t involved in the “Re-Thinking Main Street” project by two nonprofit groups that began more than two years ago. When the city council accepted the report in 2011, he turned it into a grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation. When Concord didn’t receive funding last year, he revised the application to help the city try again. In June, Concord was awarded $4.71 million to improve safety, handicapped accessibility and transportation along Main Street while stimulating economic development.
This fall, an advisory committee tasked with developing design recommendations met twice weekly. Roberge, Baia, City Planner Gloria McPherson and Assistant for Special Projects Matt Walsh attended every meeting.
Engineering details such as parking, traffic and bike lanes became the most frequent topics of debate. At nearly every meeting, the committee had a new assignment for Roberge: Count the parking spaces the city might lose with every possible design; come back in 48 hours with a presentation about a new parking layout; or find out if Concord Steam can heat the entire street in addition to the sidewalks.
“He’d come up and people would be all worked up about something,” Duprey said. “And he’s very calm and deliberative in his approach. . . . Every time he did that, that would be reassuring to the committee.”
At the committee’s first meeting, members agreed their most difficult debate would be the controversial idea of reducing Main Street from four lanes to three lanes. But on Oct. 16, Roberge presented what he calls “the secret weapon” – two wide lanes with a crossable median.
“When he first came forward and said, ‘Here we’ve got this design for a two-lane,’ I thought: ‘Right,’ ” Duprey said.
But the committee bought into Roberge’s explanation that the design “behaves like a three-lane” while leaving more room for wide sidewalks, bicyclists and parking spaces.
Roberge said he “tried to keep quiet for the most part” while the Main Street committee did its work, weighing in only to answer technical questions.
He credits Project Manager Jeff Warner for the two-lane idea. Although the city planned to hire private consultants, Roberge said he and his staff knew they needed to begin designing immediately after the grant was awarded. On Main Street, Roberge knew he’d have to balance the competing interests of business owners, cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.
Residents and elected officials appreciate Roberge’s ideas because “he really puts in the time and effort to find compromise where it can be found,” Baia said.
The committee’s report, accepted by the city council last week, calls for a Main Street with two traffic lanes, wide sidewalks and parallel parking along one side of the street – as long as the loss of parking spaces is minimal.
The specific design is still up in the air, and the city has hired CMA Engineers and consulting firm McFarland-Johnson, Inc. to create it. Roberge will be in daily contact with designers to answer questions. He’ll also continue to gather public input.
There’s a lot to be done before March, when he will present design options to the city council, and before next September when construction will begin. But Roberge smiles when he imagines how Main Street will look by 2015.
“I sit here every day and I look out and I see a variety of historic buildings,” Roberge said last week, pointing out his office window with a view down Capitol Street to Main Street. “I see a piece of downtown. The excitement of creating a transformative downtown, I do look forward to that.”
The engineer, often described as humble, now has Main Street’s future in his hands. But, as the advisory committee made up of business and property owners, residents and elected officials decided, he’s up to the challenge. On the night Roberge asked the committee members to trust him, one shout rose above their laughter and applause: “You’re the man.”