By Brett Yates
After significant delays and cost overruns, the Rutland City Dept. of Public Works (DPW) expects by November to see the substantial completion of the wastewater system overhaul authorized on Town Meeting Day in 2019, when voters passed a $7.4 million bond to fund a package of four sewerage improvements.
At that time, DPW hoped that the first of these projects — a replacement of the East Creek force main (declared an emergency in 2018 following the discovery of a leak in the existing 1972 ductile iron pipe) — would conclude by the fall of 2019. Contractors would then handle the next three — a rehabilitation of the wastewater treatment facility’s digester and a pair of efforts to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSO) in the Northwest Neighborhood and near Meadow Street – during the 2020 construction season.
Trouble began, however, when a Rutland city resident filed a lawsuit to invalidate the results of the city’s 2019 election, which prevented DPW from accessing the approved bond money until a judge’s dismissal of the suit 11 months later. Soon after, Covid-19 struck, and according to DPW Acting Commissioner James Rotondo, the resulting economic freeze led to difficulties in securing necessary materials for construction.
For two of the four projects, the lowest construction bid exceeded the city’s planned budget. Once work had begun, additional costs started to accumulate, as contractors ran into contaminated soil, which required remediation, as well as unmapped duct banks containing utilities that had to be avoided, according to Rotondo.
The wastewater digester also turned out to be in worse shape than the city had known.
“Once they opened it up, we discovered additional work that needed to be done,” Rotondo recounted. “There were sleeves, there were wall penetrations that, once they removed the old pipes, they found that they were deteriorated to the degree that it made no sense to put in new seals and new pipes without changing those out.”
The new force main “encountered the most adversity,” in the words of Paul Clifford, who chairs the Board of Aldermen’s public works committee. The city’s consultant recommended a “directional drilling” method that would have allowed the pipe’s installation to take place underground, without the surface-level disturbances caused by excavation. But according to DPW, “large cobbles” eventually stopped the drillers in their tracks, suspending work until the consultant could draw up a wholly new plan for an old-fashioned “open cut” installation.
Even so, construction on the force main will end on June 30 by DPW’s projection, well before the Nov. 1 date set for the digester rehabilitation.
“We’ve already crossed East Creek, so the hardest part of the job is done,” Rotondo asserted.
Meanwhile, DPW has temporarily removed from the wastewater system overhaul’s scope of work one of the two proposed CSO reduction projects, the smallest of the package’s four components. CSOs occur when a city uses the same sewer for both stormwater and wastewater: during heavy rainfall, outfalls release raw sewage directly into urban waterways in order to relieve pressure upon the wastewater treatment plant. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has directed Rutland City to come up with a “long-term control plan” for such events, and the expected construction near Meadow Street will remain on hold until the city determines how the project will fit into its broader state-mandated CSO abatement program.
In 2019, city officials estimated that the four sewerage improvements would together leave behind $4.8 million of municipal debt, with state and federal grants and subsidies paying back the remainder of the $7.4 million bond. DPW now believes that the city’s share of the project will come to $6.48 million, with grants and subsidies covering $3.7 million.
In Rotondo’s view, most of the cost overruns were unavoidable. “If we were going to proceed with the project, we really didn’t have a choice,” he said.
In the case of the failed construction plan for the force main, however, Rotondo acknowledged that haste, in the face of a state-imposed deadline, may have played a role. “There was a $1.5 million pollution control grant hanging over our head,” he described. “I’m not going to say shortcuts were made, but I think the design period was compressed, and maybe we didn’t get as much review time to digest every step of the way.”
Until recently, in Vermont, state-administered subsidies for municipal wastewater and drinking water projects arrived only upon their completion. In 2020, however, the Vermont General Assembly changed the rules, effectively giving cities and towns permission to make use of these subsidies during construction.
This revision, it seems, will help Rutland City pay for its sewerage overhaul’s unexpected costs without at any point unlawfully exceeding the level of indebtedness authorized by the 2019 bond. On June 7, the Board of Aldermen voted to let DPW use the new financing method for a set of last-minute procurements (totaling $662,000) for the digester — heat exchangers, swivel connectors, and a motor starter for its gas compressor — and for a bypass pump connection that will keep the new force main operational in the event of failure at the River Street Pump Station.
“It cost us more money, but I think we’re getting a good product on all these projects that are going to serve us well in the future and all the taxpayers well,” Rotondo predicted.
By his account, it hasn’t been an easy road. “I’ve never seen this many problems on these types of projects,” Rotondo revealed. “It was really disheartening many days, coming into the office and facing the next problem in line.”