Sewage lines are a necessity no one likes to talk about which usually are out of sight and out of mind — until problems occur underground that become ugly on the surface.
This reality was highlighted Thursday night when Mount Airy officials held a lengthy discussion on a familiar subject — the seeking of grant funds to replace aging utility lines in the Maple Street-Merritt Street area. But information emerged about what is at stake for residents of that neighborhood located just north of West Independence Boulevard.
“We want to replace failing sewer lines where there have been some problems,” city Community Development Director Martin Collins said in outlining the need during a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting.
“They do break and there’s been some backups into households,” Collins added, saying this has been a “challenging” event for residents affected by sewage issues.
“It is some of the oldest and most-troublesome infrastructure that the city has,” Collins said of lines in the Maple Street-Merritt Street area, “and it’s almost a 100-percent residential neighborhood.” The pipes in question also include ones along Willow Street and behind houses on Maple and Willow streets.
The reason for the sewage failures is clear: most of the lines are made of terra-cotta, a clay-based material, and are more than 60 years old.
To alleviate the problem, Mount Airy plans to apply for federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding of up to $2 million, a move no citizens opposed during a required public hearing on the grant proposal Thursday night.
That funding would provide for the installation of 7,700 linear feet of 8-inch sewer lines.
Replacing lines in the Maple Street-Merritt Street area has been a top priority for city officials in recent years, which is part of a larger problem of an aging municipal infrastructure particularly in older sections of town. In addition to sewer, deteriorating water lines are an issue in the area.
Separate water issue
After having failed twice to secure CDBG funding, in 2015 and 2016, Mount Airy will be submitting the latest grant application before a late-September deadline in the hopes it will be successful.
This time around the city is using a different strategy, separating the sewer need from the water line replacement — which is viewed as less critical.
“If we had taken this approach last year, we would have had a much better chance of being funded,” Collins said of a CDBG point system used to fund projects in different areas which rewards those with the greatest need.
“The lower water score drug our (overall) score down,” he added. “Without the water line application last year, we may have been funded.”
Along with a demonstrated need for new infrastructure, preference is given to projects that will benefit low-and-moderate-income (LMI) individuals, who make up 77.4 percent of residents in Mount Airy’s project area. “There are a lot of apartments, and LMI households,” Collins said.
Out of 51 grant applications submitted last year by Mount Airy and other entities, 21 were awarded.
Because of water lines being less of a priority, the municipality will be seeking funding from a different revenue source for that component, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF). That program aids facility replacement under a state loan/grant initiative offering low-interest loans at 50 percent of market rates, with $1.02 million sought in Mount Airy’s case.
It would provide 6,200 linear feet of 6-inch water lines in the Maple Street-Merritt Street area.
“This is not an unusual approach,” Collins said of the strategy involving two different funding sources, which will not hurt the city’s chances for the CDBG money.
In response to a question from Mayor David Rowe, Collins said one overall project is anticipated by a construction contractor using the multiple sources.
The total estimated cost of the water-sewer line rehabilitation is $2.7 million, based on updated figures.
In response to another question, from Commissioner Jim Armbrister, the community development director said there is a possibility one application could be successful and the other not.
This would subject the city government to making up the difference, with Collins saying that whatever grant funding is received will unburden local taxpayers of the figure.
At that point in Thursday night’s discussion, Commissioner Jon Cawley asked whether it is feasible to complete one project first — namely the sewer work — and delay the other.
“You can do them separately,” City Engineer Mitch Williams replied.
However, both he and Collins said this approach is not recommended from a practical standpoint.
“By doing it at the same time, you get current pricing,” Collins said in pointing out that that cost probably would be higher if the projects occur separately.
“And you don’t have to tear up and fix the street twice,” he said. “You would do a lot of damage.”
In addition to streets, back yards of some homes would have to be dug up twice, causing a double disruption for residents involved.
Williams said two different sets of installations, or trenches, are required for water and sewer lines, with the latter placed deeper into the ground.
Although the water line situation in the Maple Street-Merritt Street neighborhood is deemed less severe than the sewer issues, the need exists, based on Thursday night’s discussion.
“The city is just out there a lot,” Williams said of crews responding to broken lines. “It’s been on our rehab radar for several years.”
Fire protection in the area is also a concern.
“We do not have good water pressure out there,” Fire Chief Zane Poindexter said during the meeting.
Collins hopes to know the fate of the funding applications by February.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.