Residents wait wearily as Water Dept. takes months to replace sewers and mains

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A temporary No Parking sign says street work is scheduled from 1/10/18 to T.B.D. (Jim Saksa/WHYY)

A temporary No Parking sign says street work is scheduled from 1/10/18 to T.B.D. (Jim Saksa/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly

On the 2300 block of South Mole Street, a temporary “No Parking” sign is stapled to a telephone poll, banning cars during street work scheduled between “1/10/18” and “T.B.D.” As in, “to be determined.” With Memorial Day just around the bend, residents say they’re still waiting for the city to determine when the construction will end.

“Two seasons have passed, winter and spring, and we’re going quickly into summer,” said Ryan Murphy, a school district employee and Mole Street resident. “Will this be done before June? I don’t know.”

For the last four months, Murphy and her neighbors have lived on a dirt road as the Philadelphia Water Department replaces the water mains and sewers. And, for two months, the block was without sidewalks as well, as crews dug large trenches in the street to gain access to pipes.

Philadelphia’s 3,200 miles of water pipes are, on average, about 70 years old. Some, like Mole Street’s, were installed before the Civil War. The ancient cast-iron pipes have been pumping in clean water for drinking and bathing well past their expected lifetimes. And unless PWD replaces the worst worn with new ductile iron pipes, Philadelphians will suffer through more water main breaks like those that struck East FallsCenter CityRittenhouse SquarePhiladelphia International Airport, and many other neighborhoods in recent months. In the first two weeks of January alone, there were 176 water main breaks across the city.

To reduce the backlog of needed repairs, PWD has requested an 11 percent rate increase over the next three years to step up water-main replacement to 42 miles per year, from about 28.

That means more streets will be ripped up for months on end, said PWD spokesman Joe DiGiulio, but it’s worth it.

“That little bit of inconvenience and time, we hope, can buy someone a lifetime of never having to have us back on their block,” he said.

According to DiGiulio, the average water-main replacement takes about a month, and replacing a sewer takes about three to four months. Most streets get both replaced, plus any service lines made of lead, at the same time, resulting in an active construction zone for a mean five months.

But those figures include only the time it takes to replace the lines, DiGiulio admitted. “It does not mean that the street is finished once we’re done putting the sewer in. Paving has to happen,” he said.

Getting the contractor to repave the street and replace the sidewalks can take weeks or even months more.

Replacing water mains and sewers is labor-intensive, slow work that needs to stop in inclement weather. Still, work on any given block could be finished more quickly — weeks often pass between the water main’s replacement and the sewer’s replacement, and more weeks again before paving begins.

That’s a deliberate move on PWD’s part to save money. “It’s not cost-efficient to bring in a paving company to pave one block, come back again in a couple of months, pave another block,” said DiGiulio. “We try to be prudent with our ratepayer dollars.”

The Water Department contracts out a handful of blocks in a neighborhood at a time, grouping the work for cost-efficiency. “We’ll replace the water mains, likely finish on a block, go to the next, and then come back a couple of months later to do the sewers on the first block that we started on,” said DiGiulio. “When we’re doing that, there is a delay from part one to part two, and then there could be further delay from part two to part three, which would be the final paving for the job.”

Even after the road is paved and sidewalk is set, it can take months more before final touches, like installing wheelchair-accessible sidewalk ramps, are completed. The ramps must comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act’s exacting standards, which means the city’s Streets Department must review and authorize the design of each one. Add up all the delays, and the time between the work’s start and ultimate conclusion can surpass a year.

“[PWD Work] started in February,” said Jen Devor, block captain of the 1500 block of South Carlisle Street. “It was absolutely, totally finished two weeks ago.”

“February of 2017,” she clarified — the work took 15 months to complete. Devor’s road was a muddy pit for only about a third of that period, but seasons changed before the final touches were put in place.

Living on a dirt road for months on end can be disruptive enough, but residents of the 2300 block of Mole Street also complained that contractors had inadvertently damaged their homes during construction.

“It’s got me very upset — really upset,” Rita Zammer said as she pointed to where her front patio’s short brick wall once stood. The railing is gone, there’s a crack in her steps, and the cement crumbles. Her neighbors say they’ve had their facades cracked and basements flooded.

According to DiGiulio, contractors are responsible for repairing any home damage done, and Zammer said she has received oral assurances from the contractor on her block that he’ll repair her patio. Still, she’s nervous, so she called the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

“They’re telling me, ‘Don’t worry about it, the city is going to take care of it,’” Zammer said. “I don’t trust the city.”

Some of her neighbors say they’ve called lawyers. Zammer has no intention of following their lead, though. “I don’t want money, I’m not getting a lawyer, I’m not getting money back,” she said. “I  want this to look the way it looked before they came here.”

Residents say they can take the months-long inconvenience and even suffer the temporary damage to their homes. “We all understand that this has to take place,” said Murphy. “But what I feel that we are all feeling is that we’re stranded here. The city hasn’t come out, the Water Department hasn’t come. We’re just left with these contractors, who, to be honest, sometimes their bedside manner hasn’t really been polite.”

DiGiulio vigorously contested the no-notice allegations, saying that residents get three written notices before work begins — one mailed when the job is being bid out, another when the contract is awarded, and a third hand-delivered a few days before work begins.

The first letter informs residents that their water main will be replaced “sometime within the year,” and the second notice provides a date range for the work — a sample DiGiulio provided noted that construction would occur between April 19 and Dec. 25. But those notices apply to the five to ten blocks being replaced together, and the date range appears on the notice’s second page, where some residents may not look.

PWD tries to make the notices look different from the water bills, which many households now ignore, having set up online bill payment. The letters come emblazoned with “Construction Notice” in red italics across the front.

But that might not be enough to garner attention. According to the U.S. Postal Service’s 2016 Household Diary study of mail recipients’ habits, 52 percent of households say they read advertising mail — which includes government notices — while 21 percent scan it and 25 percent throw it away without ever reading.

The Water Department also sends representatives to local community meetings to spread word of the impending construction, but those communicative efforts also seem to fall short of reaching the intended audiences.

Residents say they often ask the private contractors for updates on construction time frames and receive little or inadequate information in response. DiGiulio said each site should have an PWD inspector there to respond to residents’ questions and concerns.

Murphy, who attended many of the community meetings, said she still didn’t know when work would end on her still muddy street. “We all want answers on when this will be completed,” she said. “It’s taken a long, long, long time.”

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