By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Carbondale’s town government is quietly wrestling with questions about how to come up with what may be tens of millions of dollars worth of replacement and repairs to the town’s aging infrastructure, meaning buried utility pipes and streets in this context.
Aside from buried pipes and paved streets, it should be noted, there are other aspects to the term, “infrastructure,” such as public parking lots, building and recreational facilities, which will be covered in future articles.
Difficult and boring as it may be to most residents, contemplating municipal infrastructure of the type under discussion here is a critical part of the planning work done by towns, and it is of greater importance to the average citizen than he or she may understand.
And Carbondale is in the middle of just that sort of planning, as Public Works Director Kevin Schorzman and his predecessor, Larry Ballenger, made clear in a recent interview.
“From my perspective, I think our infrastructure is in pretty darned good shape,” said Ballenger, who recently retired following 18 years as public works director.
But, as he and Schorzman conceded, there is work to be done to bring the town’s facilities up to date, a costly endeavor that may bring about increases in the water and sewer rates charged to residential and commercial users, and possible tax hikes (local voters rejected a proposed “capital improvements” property tax last April).
Reviewing the streets
In general, Ballenger and Schorzman agreed, the town has managed to keep its streets in good repair, and its underground network of water and sewer pipes reliable and operational despite several years of reduced civic income related to the recession of 2008-09.
But some of the town’s streets already are in need of repair and possible reconstruction.
Ballenger noted in particular the concrete panels (concrete was seen as more durable than asphalt) used to pave Main, Weant and 8th streets, back in the late 1970s, which he said are showing signs of wear.
Prior to the concrete street-paving project, Ballenger said, most of the town’s streets were unpaved or chip-sealed (a process of spraying oil on the dirt streets and embedding a layer of gravel in the oil to provide a type of paved surface).
Those dirt streets, Ballenger continued, had been heavily compacted by years of traffic (wagons at first, then cars and trucks), which he cites as a big part of why the concrete streets have lasted as well as they have.
Concrete streets, Schorzman said, typically have a useful life of 30-40 years, “and we’re right at the end of that.”
Recently, the town has replaced some of the panels that were cracked by constant traffic, or which had to be pulled up for utility work under the surface.
“Everything’s just coming of age,” Ballenger intoned.
The same is true of the asphalt streets, which have been overlaid regularly for the past couple of decades but now are getting to the age where some must be excavated and replaced, as already has been done for some streets in the Colorado Meadows neighborhood and along part of Barber Drive.
At the least, the two experts agreed, some of the asphalt streets need to be “re-crowned,” or shaped to create a high centerline that will provide better drainage and help to preserve the paving.
As of right now, Schorzman said, about 10 percent of the town’s asphalt streets are in need of some kind of immediate work, while perhaps 70 percent are in fairly good shape and the remainder are in excellent condition given their age.
Roads that will need work sooner rather than later, Ballenger said, include Village Road, Meadowood Drive, and the part of Barber Drive that was not rebuilt last year.
Pipes and such
Also under scrutiny are the town’s water and sewer pipes.
The water pipes in the old part of town are mainly cast iron, and “seem to be in really good shape,” Ballenger said, though there are places where old four-inch pipes need to be “upsized” to six- or eight-inch diameters to accommodate increased volumes of water as the town grows.
He said the pipes appear to be holding up well, and not deteriorating due to electrolytic corrosion (a common issue with older pipes) associated with connecting the iron pipes to copper tubing that carries the water into many local homes.
Ballenger conceded that one potential problem — the breakdown or seizure of valve boxes used to temporarily turn water service off or on — is becoming more acute as time passes and budget cutbacks eliminate jobs at Town Hall.
Schorzman agreed, saying that it would be best for the life of the water delivery system if town employees could regularly “exercise” the valve boxes to keep them in good working order.
But, he said, he lacks the staff to do so, a condition that is not likely to change soon because “nobody would want to see that many people working here.”
One result is that, when a valve box freezes or breaks (as one did beneath South 2nd Street recently), the site must be excavated, a new valve installed, and then the hole filled up again and paved over — which can represent an entire day’s work for a crew of four to eight people.
Schorzman said he will be looking into the matter in the near future to determine if there is a way, with current staffing, to regularly exercise the valve boxes.
In the old part of town, according to officials, sewer pipes often are made of a type of clay that dates back decades, although many have been “sleeve-lined” with a plastic-based material intended to lengthen the pipes’ lifespan.
In more recently developed parts of town, the pipes typically are some type of plastic.
The town used to spend considerable sums of money to hire outside contractors to “scope” sections of sewer pipe to identify blockages, but the town now has its own equipment to do that job, Schorzman said — thus saving money and allowing for quicker response when sewers get blocked up.
Part of that effort to keep the town’s infrastructure up and running is an ongoing study by the SGM engineering company to determine whether the town’s current schedule of water and sewer rates (the fees charged to local residents for water and sewer service) is sufficient to meet the funding needs of future system upgrades, whether for water or sewer.
At a recent work session with the Board of Trustees, consulting engineer Louis Meyer of SGM indicated that over the next 20 years or so the town needs to grapple with raising rates at some point, and possibly impose higher taxes, in order to provide a financial cushion for future infrastructure repairs and replacement.
Meyer, along with Ballenger, Schorzman and Utilities Director Mark O’Meara, has been working on updating the town’s 20-year water and wastewater master plan, which would be meant to guide the town’s infrastructure work until the year 2035.
In a slideshow Meyer presented to the Trustees on Dec. 20, he reported that the town’s current peak water demand is two million gallons per day, or gpd (the system’s capacity is around three million gpd), but that demand is expected to rise to more than 3.2 gpd by the hear 2035, Meyer said.
To back up these figures, Meyer’s presentation noted that the town’s present population is about 6,700, up from about 6,400 in 2010, the year of the most recent census. The presentation also stated that Carbondale grew by about 24 percent between the years 2000 and 2010, and that the town’s new comprehensive plan calls for the population to grow to more than 11,000 by 2035.
To cover the resultant increased demand for water and sewer services, he continued, the town should plan for a water-treatment system capacity of four million gpd, including a need to add a fourth well to the town’s three existing water wells along the Roaring Fork River.
The town’s other water sources are springs at Nettle Creek, dating to 1911, and two newer wells adjacent to the Crystal River, though the Crystal River wells currently are out of service due to a state health department order concerned about surface-water contamination.
At Nettle Creek, according to Utilities Director Mark O’Meara, the main trunk line carrying water from the treatment plants was installed in 1974.
And while the line “has aged very well” over the decades, O’Meara said, it will need to be replaced at some point, probably sooner rather than later.
Overall, Meyer indicated, the town could be facing as much as $21 million in costs of upgrading and fixing its aging water delivery system.
A similar need for upgrades in the next decade or two, Meyer said, is evident concerning the town’s sewer system. In a chart distributed to the trustees, Meyer indicated that Carbondale’s 13 miles of sewer collection lines are presently valued at about $8.2 million, but replacement of the lines could cost up to $14 million.
Meyer said the town has been “fiscally responsible” in managing its rate structures over the past eight years, in terms of keeping rates low.
But now, he said, the town needs to get more active in planning for future infrastructure projects, which he said will be triggered by state law once the water and wastewater treatment plants get close to their current capacity in terms of delivery of services.
And the best way to meet that costly future, he said, is to raise water and sewer rates charged to users, as well as tap fees charged for tying new customers to the town’s systems.
The trustees held a wide ranging discussion about Meyer’s information, but were alarmed at the amounts of money that will be needed and about the idea of imposing big hikes in user rates and tap fees.
They instructed Meyer, working with town staff, to keep massaging the numbers and return to the BOT with a list of options for meeting the town’s future funding needs that might not place too much of a burden on the taxpayers.
Published in The Sopris Sun on January 5, 2017.