Residents, city leaders discuss solutions to downtown infrastructure problems

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 | 11:24 p.m. CDT; updated 6:42 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 8, 2014

COLUMBIA — An aging sanitary sewer system, a derelict storm sewer system and a need for greater capacity in the electric system are the issues hindering more downtown development.

When asked how much more development downtown could handle, City Manager Mike Matthes said, "Not much."

Members of city staff explained the capacity issues facing downtown's utilities and received suggestions for how to fund their improvements during a town hall meeting held by the Downtown Columbia Leadership Council Infrastructure Subcommittee on Wednesday night.

Matthes said the problem with funding infrastructure improvements and upkeep isn't unique to Columbia. The nationwide problem persists because cities don't put money aside for system maintenance or depreciation because, "they simply can't afford it."

"We always wait until there's a problem to solve until we solve it," he said.

Funding for all depreciation of infrastructure is unrealistic, Matthes said. But there are millions of dollars in a depreciation fund for Columbia Water and Light, which can pay for additional electric capacity, John Conway, the department's advisory board chairman, said.

Downtown Leadership Commissioner Brian Treece asked Conway if circumstances were dire enough for that money to be spent on downtown. Conway deferred the solution to city staff.

Public Works Director John Glascock explained the capacity issues facing the Flat Branch sewer line. He reviewed a chart that shows how the line has adequate capacity unless the city experiences an inch or more of rain.

He said the problem became apparent when sewer flow increased after the Brookside apartments were built downtown. But it took a proposed 24-story building at 227 S. Sixth St., where Bengals Bar & Grill is currently located, for the Public Works Department to realize development couldn't continue without sewer replacement.

A new Flat Branch line would accommodate 36,000 additional beds downtown. The four-part line will cost $6.75 million to replace.

Inflow and infiltration — stormwater leaking into the sanitary sewer system — is the main problem plaguing the system and the real reason development can't continue, Glascock said. An inadequate stormwater sewage system is big part of the problem, he said.

He showed videos of stormwater leaking from the storm sewers into a sanitary sewer and a photo of one storm sewer that was overrun with electric and cable lines. He said the city doesn't know the extent of the storm sewers' problems and it discovers more issues regularly.

The city is currently lining pipes to remedy the problem, but the problem is widespread and affects most of the city's sewers, Glascock said.

Former Fifth Ward Councilman John John said the council knew about the problem with the Flat Branch line after it received a report from a consultant in 2004 and did nothing to fix the problem. He also suggested privatizing the city's utilities in order to make them more efficient. 

Water and Light Director Tad Johnsen said downtown Columbia has a maximum electric capacity of 72 megawatts and use usually peaks at 62 megawatts. He said that 10-megawatt difference is misleading because of the city’s need for redundancy — the ability to stay online if a transformer or feeder line goes offline for maintenance or malfunction. If a feeder or transformer were to go offline, the city's 10-megawatt reserve would not be enough to make up the difference if more large residential developments are built downtown.

A new feeder line from the Rebel Hill substation and proposed feeder lines from the Hinkson Creek substation will bring in more capacity but won’t do much to increase redundancy, Johnsen said. That redundancy will come from the construction of a new substation at Mill Creek.

There will be another town hall meeting at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Daniel Boone City Building.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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