Rob Buckley

A half century’s worth of experience in construction didn’t come by choice, claims Rob Buckley, the third-generation leader of a family business, Buckley & Co. But when a tragic truck fire burned a section of Interstate 95 through Philadelphia last summer, engineers with the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation knew who their choice was to call.

Buckley in turn called on subcontractors and suppliers to reverse-engineer a fast-tracked solution from scratch. “On Sunday, June 11 and within an hour of the bridge collapse on I-95, I received a call from Rob Buckley,” says Archie Filshill, CEO of Aero Aggregates of North America. “He explained what happened and shared his thoughts on how to rebuild I-95 quickly using foam-glass aggregate.”

Crews built an embankment with mechanically stabilized earth walls between the bridge abutments. Other firms also promptly answered the call, offering emergency paving, median barriers, steel girders for the permanent fix and even a jet blower to help keep the asphalt dry in the rain.

The interstate was reopened to traffic in 12 days. The permanent fix is scheduled to finish up this year.

“In our industry, you don’t know where you stand until an incident like this,” Buckley says. “The remarkable thing was that basically anyone I asked to help us with this project was willing to step up.”

That included local, state and federal officials—all the way up to President Joe Biden—providing support both financially and logistically. Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation “Mike Carroll came and never left for those 12 days,” recalls Buckley. “We had an all-star team. We had one goal and one deal.”


Buckley’s Clout

Buckley’s clout was so strong that he asked President Biden not to visit the site, as the security detail and helicopter would interrupt work. Biden respected the request.

“So many public agencies and private firms worked together with urgency and cooperation on an effective response,” says Louis Belmonte, PennDOT’s district executive. “Still, Rob and the Buckley team are the ones who put the pieces together and made it happen.”

Buckley says he first began working in construction at age 15. “I had just about every job you can imagine,” he says, from cleaning grease pits to eventually earning seven crane licenses to operating dredges, tugboats and diving. Projects he worked on include Florida’s Epcot Center, the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in New York state, the San Francisco International Airport and rail work in Philadelphia.

His track record with emergency jobs made him the go-to contractor for I-95. “You have to learn to react very quickly,” he says. He notes that everyone else did too: “The whole job was done on a handshake; my word is my bond. Everyone picked up the phone that Sunday. Contractors called, asking if I needed help.”

He adds wryly, “I have a reputation of being a little bit crazy—it’s not uncommon for me to ask people to do the impossible. ‘Stop what you’re doing and get this done.’ Not one person said no.”

For example, Filshill’s firm not only provided 8,000 cu yd of aggregate but took on the responsibility of designing the temporary retaining wall. Filshill said, “We’ll see what we can do in two weeks,” Buckley recalls. “I said, ‘no, we need it tomorrow by lunch.’”

He adds: “We were asked to move heaven and earth, and we prayed to heaven but we moved a heck of a lot of earth.”

All ENR 2023 Top 25 Newsmakers will be honored at the Award of Excellence Gala on April 11 in New York City.