Age, not light-rail project, causing sewer lines to fail, officials say
by: JIM CLARK, Workers do emergency sewer repair on Southwest Market Street and Second Avenue, proof that even sewers blocks from the light rail project have problems.

Since construction of TriMet's new light-rail line through downtown started last year, four sewer pipes running under it have failed - costing the city nearly $640,000 in emergency repairs.

Now the city has decided that 11 other pipes running under the line also need repairs, at an estimated cost of $5 million.

When the work is done, the city will have repaired the pipes under every street the line crosses between West Burnside and Southwest Mill streets. Despite the relationship to the project, the city is not asking TriMet to pay any of the repair costs.

That is the case even though TriMet has set aside $18.3 million in its Interstate 205-Portland Transit Mall light-rail project for unforeseen problems. City and TriMet officials both agree it is impossible to prove the light-rail work caused the pipe problems.

'Many of the sewer pipes in downtown are more than 100 years old, so when they fail, it's hard to prove it was because of any particular thing,' said Lisa Libby, an aide to Commissioner Sam Adams, who oversees the Bureau of Environmental Services, the city agency that operates the sewer system.

TriMet officials also deny that work on the transit mall project caused the problems, noting the pipes are buried 35 feet underground. According to TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch, agency engineers say that some of the pipes are nearly 35 feet below street level, too deep for construction-related vibrations to reach them.

Libby said that the BES inspected all the pipes under the new light-rail line before the project started and did not see any reason to repair them.

It was not until the fourth pipe failed that the agency reinspected the pipes and decided the additional ones should be repaired.

At the same time, repairs also are needed on some downtown pipes that do not run under the line. Two sections of Southwest Market Street are closed for pipe work - the intersection of Second Avenue, for a relatively minor repair, and the intersection of Sixth Avenue, for the collapse of a manhole that created a large sinkhole.

Repairs also are planned for sections of pipes between Southwest Fourth Avenue on Morrison, Washington and Oak streets.

'Many of the sewer pipes in downtown are just beyond their useful lives,' BES spokesman Linc Mann said.

Perhaps significantly, all of the pipes between Burnside and Mill are more than 100 years old. The pipes that do not need to be repaired under the other sections of the new line are between 20 and 30 years old.

Plans call for the pipes to be re-lined in the ground so they will not have to be dug up.

Some work was planned

Sewer lines run under every downtown street. Those that run west and east carry sewage and storm water to the so-called Big Pipe that recently was installed and runs under the west bank of the Willamette River, where it is pumped to the sewage treatment plant in North Portland. Pipes that run north and south connect buildings to the west-east pipes.

The transit mall renovation project includes the construction of a new light-rail line along Fifth and Sixth avenues from Union Station to Portland State University.

It is expected to be completed and begin running by fall 2009. Including the new line from the Gateway District to the Clackamas Town Center along I-205, the total project is set at $575.7 million.

City officials knew the downtown portion of the project would require some sewer work. Before the light-rail lines were put down, portions of the north-south pipes between Northwest Irving and Southwest Jackson streets were either moved or reinforced.

This was done to help ensure that emergency sewer work would not disrupt the line once it goes into operation.

Because that sewer work was planned as part of the overall project, the cost was split among the BES, TriMet and the federal government, which is paying roughly 60 percent of the project.

As a result, although the total sewer work under parts of Fifth and Sixth avenues cost around $4.9 million, the city paid only $1.1 million.

But because the new sewer work was not planned as part of the Transit Mall/I-205 project, the BES is paying the total bill. According to Libby, the funds are coming out of the portion of the budget set aside for maintenance and reliability work.

'There are sufficient funds in the budget for this, so sewer rates will not have to be increased,' she said.

At the same time, Libby cautions that the BES does not have enough money to repair or replace sewer pipes simply because they reach a certain age.

Aging infrastructure piles up

Portland officials have long been aware that the city's infrastructure is aging and requires constant upkeep. Studies and reports dating back more than 17 years warn that maintenance costs are going to increase over time, both because the infrastructure is aging and because the city is growing, requiring new investments that must be kept up.

One study that called for increased maintenance spending was called Portland Future Focus. The result of an extensive community outreach effort, it was published in 1991. Ironically, as a 2002 City Council briefing report noted, the following decade was a period of 'unprecedented growth and change for the City.'

As a result, by the time the briefing took place on Oct. 22, 2002, the city's asset base was estimated at $14.7 billion - and already was believed to be deteriorating.

Bureau directors warned the council that without an increase in maintenance spending, the value of the assets in poor condition would increase from a little over $2 billion to $3.25 billion by 2012.

The council continued to receive a series of reports about the city's aging infrastructure over the next six years. Although direct comparisons are difficult because some categories changed from year to year, they all noted a growing gap in the amount of available maintenance funds.

For example, a November 2003 report said that an additional $35 million a year was needed just to bring the assets owned by the Portland Office of Transportation, Portland Parks and Recreation and the Office of Management and Finance up to 'a sustainable level of maintenance.'

When the council received its most recent report on Feb. 27, it said the city spent $112 million less than necessary in 2007 - although the asset base was expanded to include the value of 'green infrastructure,' including trees and natural areas.

In part because of the natural resources, the new report pegged the city's total infrastructure replacement value at $21.5 billion, an increase of almost $7 billion in just six years.

The report was prepared by a team of managers from various city agencies, including parks, transportation, environmental services, the Portland Water Bureau, the Office of Sustainable Development and the Portland Development Commission.

Among other things, they urged the council to prioritize critical maintenance projects and to spend more general fund dollars on them.

The report noted that the council had not acted on similar advice in the past, however.

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