Pa. Voters OK $400M for Local Sewer, Water Improvements

Tue November 25, 2008 - Northeast Edition
David Hunt




Pennsylvania voters approved a $400 million bond referendum on election day that will allow municipal authorities to provide critical upgrades to local water and sewer systems across the Commonwealth.

Nearly two-thirds of voters in Pennsylvania agreed to the referendum, with 2.8 million residents approving it. The Commonwealth will issue $400 million in bonds to pay for the water and sewer improvements.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell praised voters’ decision, pointing to the significant need to upgrade water and sewer facilities.

“Our water and sewer systems — as well as other critical components of our infrastructure — are in need of substantial investments to ensure quality, dependable services that will position our economy to grow,” Rendell said.

The $400 million approved by voters will allow the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or PENNVEST, to award grants and loans to municipal authorities for water treatment systems and pipelines across the Commonwealth.

Bruce Hottle, president of Eagle Concrete Products, Somerset, Pa., a supplier of precast concrete manholes, junction boxes and sewer pump stations, served on the governor’s Sustainable Infrastructure Task Force, which quantified the state’s water and sewer needs.

Hottle said he was glad to see that the referendum passed because “there’s a pent up need for water and sewer improvements in Pennsylvania.”

Hottle said many sewer systems in Pennsylvania were built in the 1950s and 1960s and that many are now 15 to 20 years beyond their useful life. The result, he said, is that leaky pipes and overflowing systems are “dropping sewage into the watershed.”

Paul Marchetti, executive director of PENNVEST, said that out of the total $400 million package, $200 million would be set aside in the form of grants. The other half of the funding, he said, would cover loans to municipal authorities.

“What’s unique is that we have more grant capability than we’ve ever had in the past,” Marchetti said.

Marchetti said the water and sewer improvements would be funded based on their ranking in the areas of water quality improvement and the ability to spur economic development.

Brenda Reigle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Contractors Association, said the bond referendum would fund a significant number of improvements, but added that the funding only scratches the surface of total water and sewer needs.

To quantify some of those needs, Rendell convened a Sustainable Infrastructure Task Force, which found a need for $36.5 billion in capital repairs and improvements over the next 20 years. In addition, the task force said an additional $77.1 billion would be needed for the operation, maintenance and debt service to provide those services in Pennsylvania.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank operating in Harrisburg, suggested in a statement issued just prior to the Nov. 4 election that while the need for water and sewer improvements seemed clear, it questioned the use of long-term debt to pay for such projects.

David Holley, general manager of the Schuylkill County Municipal Authority, said that the $400 million in new bonding authority will provide “a good start” in chipping away at the need for more modern water and sewer facilities.

Holley said the Schuylkill County Municipal Authority would apply for $28 million in grant money to pay for dam breast improvements as well as reservoir and spillway upgrades. He said the storm water improvements, which will have an impact on the Delaware River basin, would lessen the effect of heavy rains and flooding.

Holley said that, should additional funding become available from federal sources, as some now speculate, the authority would request modern facilities to do a better job in cleaning up the nitrogen and phosphorus in local wastewater.

Dan Guss, project engineer of Uni-Tech Consulting Engineers, State College, Pa., also was upbeat about the referendum’s passage. He pointed out that the Newton-Wayne Joint Municipal Authority in Mifflin County, one of the firm’s clients, might also benefit by the referendum’s passage. Failing septic systems have caused the joint authority, which includes three municipalities located near the Juniata River, to work together to build a new public sewer system.

“The cost for these municipalities is high because this project involves rural houses that are scattered,” Guss said. “Applying for assistance makes a lot of sense for them.”

The project, in a low income area, would bring online 35,000 ft. of mainline pipe, three pump stations, and two sections of force mainlines. The new public sewer system would be connected to an already upgraded treatment facility in Mount Union, Pa. The total cost of the project is estimated at $10.6 million.

(This story also can be found on Construction Equipment Guide’s Web site at www.cegltd.com.) CEG