By Jeff Gallatin
The trade for size and speed is cost.
Project officials said being big in scope and being placed on a fast track in order to comply with federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines were major factors in the current estimated costs of the city’s sanitary sewer expansion and renovation project, which jumped from $39.5 million to more than $45.5 million.
During a special Aug. 28 meeting of City Council’s Environmental Committee meeting, Hazen and Sawyer project engineer James Gellner said he understood council’s concerns about the increase in projected costs.
“We’re not taking it lightly,” he said. “Unfortunately, with projects like this, you can have a lot of things happen.”
Both Gellner and City Engineer Pete DiFranco said current projections show that the city should have sufficient financial reserves from the last sewer rate increase and should not have to raise rates again to deal with the increased project costs. City officials cited having to meet federal EPA mandates for the project as the major factor in the last round of rate increases.
Environmental Committee Chairman Paul Schumann had called the meeting after both he and Finance Committee Chairman Paul Barker expressed concern about the $6 million price hike on the project.
Gellner said when there is a multimillion-dollar, several-year project like the wastewater sewer plant work, it can change as the project moves forward because there are many details involved. Those changes often can lead to increased costs, he said.
Barker said he understood that, noting city officials added in the Chapel Hill portion of the sewer work to help deal with long-term sewer problems which were magnified by the record rainfall and subsequent flooding issues in many areas of the city, including the Chapel Hill area.
“We understand that the Chapel Hill work is an extra $2 million,” Barker said. “But other parts like when you knew that you would be putting new materials and structures on top of old ones, didn’t anyone think to add that into the costs?”
Gellner said his firm regularly reviews project details and works to make sure cost estimates and projections stay current. He said this is how they discovered the additional projected costs relatively early in the work.
In addition, he noted that because of deadlines to meet EPA mandates and timing deadlines, the project was put together several months faster than one of this size and scope normally would be.
“It makes it more difficult, but we do work on it and adjust as the situation requires,” he said.
Gellner and DiFranco both said as any project progresses, particularly a large one, there often are changes as new information and situations are discovered. They said the project workers will continue to monitor the work closely. DiFranco noted that there also is the possibility that sometimes a worker can find a good way to save money during a big project, and that can be incorporated into the work as well.
Both Barker and Schumann said after the meeting they understood the situation, but both will still be keeping a close eye on the work.
“I feel better about it after hearing the explanations,” Barker said. “I understand that it’s a big project and that we had to move fast because of the EPA. But it’s a national engineering company, and I would expect it to be able to deal with these type of situations because they should be able to handle a big project like this.”
Schumann said he understood the explanations, but noted the project affects many people.
“It was a good meeting,” he said. “We know things can change; I just hope that we don’t have any more major increases financially. I’m hearing concern from residents who are looking at the bigger sewer bills because of those EPA mandates. It’s something we’re all going to have to pay close attention to.”