Brian O'Neill: From houses to highways: the story of 'Right-of-Way Man’
March 20, 2016 12:00 AM
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I’m driving around with Jim Broadbent, and he’s saying things like “that’s the bank I took the drunk into” or showing me where a gorgeous stone angel once blocked a front door.
You collect strange stories when you’re Right-of-Way Man, the guy tasked with buying houses so the state can get them out of the way and build its highways. You collect so many you could write a book.
Mr. Broadbent mailed me his 1999 paperback, “Right-of-Way Man,” after reading my March 6 column on next month’s reunion for East Street Valley refugees. Those are the folks who once lived and worked in the 1,400-plus homes and businesses that were leveled in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s to make way for the Parkway North.
I’d always heard that story from the perspective of the bumped, not the bumper. If I’d ever bothered to picture the state’s point man, it would have been a humorless bureaucrat with a heart of asphalt.
But Mr. Broadbent, 75, seems about as threatening as Mr. Rogers. It wasn’t he who determined where the big road and ramps would land, and he says he thought of property owners as his employers.
“It was their taxes that paid my wages,” he said, and he tried to bring compassion and fairness to people losing their homes.
Riding around in his Lincoln with the “RW-MAN’’ license plate, he showed me a brick home near the bottom of the East Street hill that had been moved there at the owners’ request, and two more that were built beside it for a couple of the last families displaced. Such extraordinary efforts were exceptions, but he believes he got nearly everyone into a home better than the one they’d left.
That’s partly because HEART — the Highway Emergency And Relocation Team — formed in 1968 to demand “a home for a home” for those displaced by the highway. That group led by Martin Krauss, an optometrist whose own office was relocated, gets credit for changing the state’s eminent domain laws to ensure fair compensation.
There weren’t many true evictions in the sense of a sheriff’s deputy knocking down a door. In his 30 years with PennDOT ending in 1991, Mr. Broadbent figures he handed out more than $40 million in nearly 1,700 checks, nearly half of those the result of North Side highway projects.
Sometimes he broke rules. He once found a family of two children and three women living in an unheated brick building in Manchester that was in the way of a road widening. Their gas line had been shut off and the baby was “wrapped in so many layers she could hardly be seen.”
He went back to the state office after hours, snagged several of his pampered co-workers’ space heaters and brought them to the family. He might have lost his job for that petty theft, but the bear hug he got when he brought over the heaters, and the dinner that the newly warm family insisted on cooking for him after he found the quintet a better home, made it worth the risk. He snuck the heaters back into the office and no one was the wiser (until now).
Mr. Broadbent grew up on the North Side, on the ironically named Complete Street — a dead end off Shadeland Avenue. He now lives just outside the city in Ross, within a half-mile of I-279. He and his sons, Jay and Michael, run Keystone Acquisition Services, which contracts with various government agencies to do right-of-way work. He’s been doing that almost as long as he worked for the state.
I took him Thursday to the Allegheny City Historic Gallery at 433 E. Ohio St., the place where the East Street Valley reunion will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday April 16. Bill Gandy, who founded the gallery with his wife Kim, was about half-certain he was facing the enemy until Mr. Broadbent explained the way he’d worked.
Then Mr. Gandy laughed, suggested he see “some of the stuff you destroyed,” and walked him through the photo gallery. Mr. Broadbent promised to come back for the reunion — though he joked, “You got a metal detector at the door?”
When he was asked if he’d do a book signing, he promised to donate as many books as the Gandys would like. The gallery is knocking the price down to $10 for a signing at 3 p.m. Saturday April 2.
Such symmetry is something Right-of-Way Man believes in. He ends his book suggesting a new way to think of highway potholes: “Maybe, just maybe, it’s the curse of a property owner who once owned the real estate you’re wheeling on.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.
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