Cities fight over limited stimulus dollars slated for sewer projects

    Cities, counties and small towns across the country are scrambling for stimulus dollars. The gold rush in federal money means some of those panning for dollars will come up short. That’s exactly what’s happening to some smaller inner ring suburban towns that had hoped to cash in by fixing their most pressing infrastructure problem – aging and collapsing sewer lines.

    Cities, counties and small towns across the country are scrambling for stimulus dollars. The gold rush in federal money means some of those panning for dollars will come up short.

    That’s exactly what’s happening to some smaller inner ring suburban towns that had hoped to cash in by fixing their most pressing infrastructure problem – aging and collapsing sewer lines.

    Listen:
    [audio: 090608spsewer.mp3]

    Trees and Victorian era homes line the streets in the middle-class borough of Lansdowne. Lansdowne is 10 miles southwest of Center City in eastern Delaware County. The town emerged after real estate developers took advantage of a new rail line from Philadelphia.

    Lansdowne is not sprawling – in fact – it’s one mile square.  And like many of the city’s “first suburbs” the 11,000 residents are now facing decay problems like running beneath the streets are 25 miles of sewer lines, constructed mostly of terra cotta pipes 100 years ago.

    Bursting pipes send raw sewage into resident’s basements on such a regular basis, that the volunteer fire company invested in a pump to clear the waste free of charge. The town recently snaked a small camera through the sewers to see what was going on.

    Craig Totaro: You can see water trickling into the sewer system, or you can see places where the pipe is completely cracked.”

    Craig Totaro is Lansdowne’s Borough Manager.

    Totaro: Normally the top begins to cave in and you get the McDonald’s arches affect, where that middle is falling in and it really looks like the weight of the world is pushing down. You can see roots growing in there and that’s going to grab things and slow down any kind of flow.

    Totaro has color-coded maps of the borough’s sewer lines – a good pipe is yellow, major repairs are marked in green, complete failure in red. The greens and reds make up the majority of the sewer lines. Totaro says to dig up and repair a failed sewer line costs twice as much as preventive maintenance.  A little one block section could cost up to half a million dollars.

    That’s a lot of money for a community whose yearly budget is just $6 million.

    Lansdowne’s Mayor Jane Young says, those hidden pipes could end up stripping the town of the money it needs to make sure it will attract new residents.

    Young: No one is choosing a place for the health of a sewer system. But they choose it for the parks, a good transit system. If you’re taking all your money to deal with issues under the street, that’s a hard sell, no one really cares, its hard to attract new buyers based on the strength of your sewer system.

    Young says she’s spending more time than she thought trying to  get the borough more stimulus money. The town will get funds to purchase new police cars, and change their current street lights to more energy efficient ones. But Young says she’s disappointed they won’t be able to fix the sewer lines.

    Young: We’re very excited about it because we thought great, there’s someone who’s recognizing how money put into a community with some strings attached but not totally directed, would free up other money to have a more stimulative effect, I thought it was a great idea. But as this goes on, it seems there’s more and more strings attached and its not the lottery that we thought it might be.

    Pennsylvania got just $223 million for sewer and drinking water projects, by contrast, $1.4 billion will be invested statewide in roads, bridges and public transportation.

    The money for sewer projects are funneled through the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest. Pennvest is essentially a bank that gives grants and low-interest loans to municipalities for infrastructure projects. Lansdowne already has $2 million in outstanding loans with Pennvest. And it was hoping to get a grant, rather than increase its debt. But to get a grant, Pennvest would require the town to significantly raise the sewer fees.

    State Senator Anthony Williams says the town is not alone, boroughs like Darby and Yeadon are in the same boat.

    Williams: Pennvest has a way of calculating, fifty years ago, when they were first created they’re still using the same formula.  And the stimulus money doesn’t dovetail into that very nicely. So the money is housed in a place that requires criteria that doesn’t work for older suburban rings.

    Mayor Young says the town can’t afford to ignore the sewer lines.

    Young: We would have roads collapsing as you drive along them.  We would have homes filled with raw sewage in the basements because this has to go somewhere. And if you are flushing your toilet and there’s no clear path to the sanitary line to take that along to the water treatment plants, its gotta go somewhere, so its gonna back up in your home or follow the path of least resistance and end up in your creeks.

    And its not just bad for the environment. The cracked pipes mean that storm water gets mixed with the sewage, and vice versa. So, the volume of water flowing into the treatment plant in Southwest Philadelphia increases during heavy rains, and that increases the sewage treatment bill for the town and of course residents.

    The town continues to search for other options within the stimulus pool to fund sewer reconstruction.

    But with deadlines looming on stimulus grants, time is running out.

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