With a $300 million price tag, 14 bridges and more than eight years in the making, the Prospect Mountain is the most massive project the New York State Department of Transportation has ever undertaken in Upstate New York. The two-phase project included the reconfiguration of Kamikaze Curve – where Route 17 and Interstate 81 split apart, to the trepidation of many out-of-area travelers.
At the pinnacle is Engineer-In-Charge Tom Phillips, who has watched construction unfold since the shovel first hit the soil on Sept. 15, 2011. He’s not only a SUNY Broome alumnus, but oversees many current Engineering Technologies students, who frequently intern on site as construction inspectors.
A project of this scope involves many smaller pieces – a bridge here, a stretch of roadway there – constructed in such a way to minimize the impact on the thousands of drivers who navigate the busy highways every single day.
The toughest part of his job is making sure that all of those pieces come together, and not just the segments of roadway under construction.
“It’s trying to build $300 million of highway construction while maintaining traffic, ensuring the safety of the traveling public and all the workers on the project, and scheduling and foreseeing issues ahead of time,” he said. “It has to be constructed like a puzzle where you can’t see the final product until the end. You can’t afford to miss anything. Everything has to tie in perfectly by the end.”
After long years on the job, the final completion date is on the horizon: Dec. 31, 2020. That is, if the DOT doesn’t finish the job ahead of schedule, and crews are working through the winter to raise those odds.
With the end in sight, what does Phillips hope to tackle next? Options include a supervisory role, overseeing multiple projects, but he enjoys being more directly involved in a project and overseeing the process from beginning to end.
“Maybe a little bridge job in the middle of nowhere!” he joked.
The blueprint for his future
A graduate of Whitney Point High School, Phillips opted for his local community college as the smart choice.
“For me, it was a no-brainer to go to Broome for the education and to save money before I went on for a bachelor’s,” he explained.
He graduated from the Civil Engineering Technology program in 2005, before heading to the SUNY Polytechnic Institute to finish his bachelor’s in civil engineering. At SUNY Broome, he particularly remembers professors Gordon Sheret, Kelli Ligeikis and Art Haas; Sheret in particular had a tough reputation, but students also respected him for being fair.
“The experience I got here was more personal, more one-on-one, more relatable to the outside, and was a much better experience than what I had elsewhere,” he said.
SUNY Broome, in fact, initially led him to the DOT via an internship with the Transportation Construction Inspectors (TCI) program. He worked as an intern for two summers, and returned to the program after earning his bachelor’s. Four month later, the DOT had openings for full-time positions and he embarked on his career with the state agency.
The TCI program still exists today – and Phillips hires many intern construction inspectors through SUNY Broome, providing the same opportunity that he himself once enjoyed.
“A big part of our job working for the State of New York is to ensure all construction operations adhere to state standards and specifications,” he said, explaining what the TCI role entails. “We also pay the contractor for the work they do. We keep track of quantities of work and pay accordingly.”
SUNY Broome students in the Civil Engineering program also take field trips to Prospect Mountain, courtesy of Phillips – who was first introduced to the project during his SUNY Broome student days.
“When I was at Broome in 2004, a representative from the DOT came and spoke at one of my classes about this big, huge Prospect Mountain construction project that was coming. It was in the design phase then,” Phillips remembered. “Fast forward, and now I’m in charge of it. From scoping to planning to design to construction, it is a process – especially for something this large in scale.”