Lake line cost rises

Unexpected 18 percent increase for new sewer

By J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter

The Sewer Lake Line Project, originally slated to cost $15 million, could now cost as much as $25 million. Islanders will pick up some of the tab in their bi-monthly utility bills.

City leaders decided to fund the costly replacement of the decaying sewer pipe on the northwest shoreline of the Island by increasing utility rates in 2008 and 2009. The rate increase could possibly raise the average Islander’s bi-monthly bill over $8 next year. An additional increase in 2009 is likely to come from the county as well.

Island utility bills will only go up $6.41 if the city receives a low-interest loan from the state. If the loan is denied, the average Island home’s bill would be $8.18 more than it is today. However, the city is seeking an additional $7 million from the state Public Works Trust Fund, money used to repair failing critical infrastructure throughout Washington.

City manager Rich Conrad said city staff and the seven-member citizen utility board recommended — and the City Council approved — the 18 percent rate increase to fund the improvements.

“The sewer line is owned by Mercer Island rate payers, and they will have to be the ones who pay for its replacement,” Rich Conrad said of the upcoming bill increase.

At the City Council meeting in early August, every bid for the Sewer Lake Line Project came nearly double what the city had expected. Staff attributed these to the size and scope of the project as it was proposed. Construction in the lake also increases the project cost.

The newest estimate for the project cost is $24.9 million, which assumes a $20.9 million construction budget. The original construction budget was estimated to be only $15 million.

In 2002, city leaders began setting aside funds to replace the deteriorating sewer line, dubbing it the Sewer Lake Line Project. After the bidding period closed in July, the two contractors that showed interest bid above $27 million. Conrad and the city’s consultants recognized the sewer line replacement will cost more than they originally expected.

“The bids clearly indicated this project is no longer a $17 million project,” Conrad said. “We can do a number of things to bring the cost down by as much as $6 million. The pipeline construction can be awarded in different bids; getting the work done in fewer fish windows saves money, and we will try to get financial help.”

To help fund the project, the city has already secured a $1 million loan from the Washington State Public Works Board to be used for design and a $7 million loan to be used for construction. In addition, the Council has been setting aside money from current sewer charges the past few years to help pay for the replacement.

The three main components of the project include the main sewer line replacement and some side sewers, relocation of one pump station and environmental mitigation. In the original proposal, all this work was included in the bid, but the city will now separate the work.

In all, the project will replace a 9,000-foot segment of decaying sewer line located in Lake Washington along the north and northwest shores of the Island. About 100 homes will be directly affected by the project, but the new rates will be shared by all Island homes. The sewer was put in during the 1950’s and is constructed of asbestos cement material. Part of the project extends from Proctor Landing to Roanoke Way and the other section is from Lincoln Landing to the 8000 block of S.E. 20th Place. The current sewer line has been experiencing ongoing deterioration, capacity deficiencies, as well as operation and maintenance problems, the city’s project Web site states. The 10- and 12-inch pipes also cannot adequately handle sewage and stormwater inflows that occur during severe storms.

According to Conrad, the City Council decided to change the project’s construction techniques based on advice received from the state and federal agencies that regulate construction in Lake Washington.

“City staff was prepared to keep an aggressive timeline to be in lake next year,” Conrad said. “The Council was saying we don’t have to feel the pressure to do that. We will now take each step deliberately and methodically, so we only do the design work as required by the regulatory agencies.”

The city still hopes to begin construction in the summer of 2008, but if that gets delayed, they will have to start the following year. Potential changes to the project include laying and anchoring the pipe on the lake bottom instead of burying it. The construction may also be broken down into smaller segments while the pump station repair is down separately as well.

While the these changes may reduce the cost around $6 million, the high costs associated with in-lake construction has Councilmember Dan Grausz interested in hearing more about the possibility of avoiding the lake altogether. The city decided to build the line under the lake bottom based on cost assumptions presented last year, Grausz said. Now, after the bids came in, things have obviously changed. Grausz said he wants to know which option is the most cost effective before he votes to invest more time and money in another take at in-lake construction.

“I want to look at all the options again and have the Council revisit the decision,” the Councilmember said.

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