The city of Waco’s proposed 2015-16 budget takes a big swipe at fixing streets and utilities that have become increasingly impossible to ignore.
The budget calls for a $71.5 million bond issue to upgrade water and sewer infrastructure all over town, while tripling the street improvement budget to about $5 million.
The tax rate will remain steady at 77.6 cents per $100 valuation, supporting a general fund budget of $122.7 million, up $7.29 million over last year. But expect the first of many gradual increases in utility rates to help fund the water and sewer improvements.
Starting in January, the typical combined sewer and water bill for those using 8,000 gallons of water a month would increase by $4.66 a month, rising from $62.77 to $67.43. That bill could gradually increase to $92.35 by 2025 as part of a proposed 10-year plan for $245 million in utility improvements.
The campaign to replace aging infrastructure has been a long time coming, inspired by studies for the soon-to-be adopted comprehensive plan. But the push gets added momentum from a series of utility failures and near-failures this year.
Those include a broken raw water line at Mount Carmel Treatment Plant, a major pipe on Lake Shore Drive that had to be replaced, and a concrete sewer line carrying most of Greater Waco’s sewage that collapsed near La Salle Avenue.
This month, a sewer main about 20 feet under a sidewalk on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive collapsed, creating a sinkhole and a major emergency project that has required traffic to be rerouted and water to be temporarily cut off this week to facilitate the sewer line repair.
“These things really highlight the necessity to accelerate the rehab and maintenance of our system,” City Manager Dale Fisseler said. “It’s symptomatic of a larger problem. You have a very old system and you’re going to have to spend a lot of money on replacement.”
The problem is mirrored in the aging street system, which has seen more potholes this year because of extreme weather. City officials plan to use a new high-tech street inventory to guide the repairs and coordinate them with the repair of under-street utilities, which typically leaves big gashes in the pavement. In the first half of 2015, the city had to make 460 cuts in city streets to fix water leaks.
“It really doesn’t make sense to fix streets if you don’t fix the underlying problems with pipes,” Fisseler said. “That takes a lot of coordination.”
The council has shown unanimous support for the street and utility improvements in recent committee meetings and Tuesday’s budget presentation.
“It’s going to fund much-needed infrastructure and storage,” Councilman John Kinnaird said.
Councilman Dillon Meek said even if the combined utility bill rises to $92 in the next decade, it will remain significantly lower than the current rates of cities such as Lorena and Robinson.
This year’s proposed bonded utility improvements include $51 million for wastewater improvements, such as a $35 million lift station replacent off La Salle Avenue. A sewer interceptor line in downtown along University Parks Drive will be rehabilitated, and about $12.7 million will be spent on small “asset renewal projects around town.”
The $21.5 million in bonded water improvements include replacing a 1920s-era ground storage tank near the old Hillcrest hospital campus and building a new 24-inch water line from there to the Riverside Water Treatment Plant.
Also in the plan is replacing what Utility Director Lisa Tye called a “hodgepodge” of water lines along Chapel Road and between Hewitt and Lorena.
If possible, Tye also would like to start work this year on a line from Riverside to the storage tank on Gholson Road.
She said those improvements help the entire system, making it easier to shift water between the two water treatment plants as demand requires. As aging lines are replaced, it makes emergencies less likely, saving the city money and the customer inconvenience.
“There are always situations that come up — it’s the nature of water and wastewater,” Tye said. “But when we talk about asset renewal, we’re identifying problems and getting those lines fixed before they break down.”
Older parts of Waco have some utility lines dating back to the early years of the 20th century.
Those lines are not only prone to leaking but inadequate for the kind of growth city leaders want in the inner city in the next few decades.
For example, Fisseler said the city has run into problems with inadequate utilities in the alleys around Austin Avenue, where old stores have been converted into condos. On a larger scale, major utility improvements will be needed before the city’s land along the Brazos River can be developed, Fisseler said.
“As we talk about rehabbing old buildings, there needs to be a consideration of infrastructure, too,” he said.
Steve Sorrells, developer of the Cameron Heights townhouse complex on North Fourth Street, said infrastructure is increasingly important as density increases in Greater Downtown.
“There will be some significant costs if you really want development to come in,” he said. “It’s not just aging, but capacity and volume. We always want to make sure we, as a city, are managing and keeping up with that, while at the same time we want the city to be lean and mean on costs.”
Sorrells, who is president of the Texas Association of Builders, said local developers want to see the city to continue to invest in infrastructure both in the core and in the growing suburban edges.
“We, as a builders association, encourage the city not to do one at the expense of the other,” he said.
Utility problems can also create short-term hardships on existing businesses and residences. This week at the Martin Luther King Jr. work site, crews rerouted a 20-inch water main so they could get to the deeper sewer line, causing some temporary water pressure fluctuations in the area.
Manny’s on the River, a new Tex-Mex restaurant near the work site, said the lane detours and signage have confused motorists and probably cost them some business.
The restaurant had a temporary water outage Thursday around 10:30 a.m., General Manager George Garcia said.
“That was kind of scary,” he said. “We didn’t have any water for about 20 minutes. We were cooking and had to stop, and we were not able to sanitize our vegetables.”
Fisseler said he hopes the city can reduce such inconveniences by catching up on its infrastructure.
“Especially when you throw in the extra cost of having to shut down a business, it’s more expensive to wait for pipes to break,” he said.