LAWRENCE – Out of the gas disaster of Sept. 13, a small silver lining has emerged.

The South Lawrence neighborhoods that suffered most when over-pressurized gas lines caused fires and explosions across three communities will be the first in the city to get new water and sewer upgrades under a $26.8 million project project scheduled to begin this spring.

The work to repair or replace sewer and water pipes, valves and a pump station was planned before the gas disaster and still will occur citywide, including in North Lawrence neighborhoods that were not affected by the disaster. But the schedule was rewritten after the disaster to do the work first in South Lawrence, where the streets were torn up and then patched over when Columbia Gas replaced or repaired more than 40 miles of damaged gas lines.

The city is demanding that Columbia Gas pay the cost of repairing and repaving the streets. Before that work starts, the city will focus the upcoming sewer and water repairs in South Lawrence so the streets will not have to be repaved a second time, which would be necessary if Columbia paved the streets before the city excavates them for the gas and sewer project.

The work in North Lawrence will follow. The scope of the work on both sides of the city will not change, only the scheduling, city Public Works Director Carlos Jaquez said Thursday.

“We don't want Columbia Gas, or whoever ends up paving the roads in the south side of the city, paving those roads, then we have to go in four or five years and excavate it,” Jaquez said. “We want to be a little more proactive, a little smarter about it, go in there and do all water and sewer and infrastructure upgrades (first), then pave the roads.”

The work will be the third major upgrade to the city's water and sewer systems since 2014, when the city began a $22 million water project.

A year later, the city signed a consent decree with the federal government that required another $20 million to repair the most decayed and corroded of the city's sewer lines, including including many in danger of collapsing and others that backed up to the streets during heavy rains. The work is ongoing, although it was suspended after the gas disaster in September to make way for the Columbia crews that were replacing the damaged gas lines.

The city launched the next phase of the water and sewer work on Jan. 31, when Mayor Daniel Rivera asked the City Council to approve borrowing $26.8 million to replace five additional miles of sewer lines, four additional miles of water lines, replace about 100 valves and to make other repairs, including replacing the Marston Street pumping station that serves Prospect Hill. Some of the sewer lines may be re-lined rather that replaced. All of the water lines will be replaced. 

The council has not yet acted on the request for the funding.

The city hopes to pay for the work with an $18 million loan from the state with an interest rate below 2 percent, and an $8.7 million commercial loan that would be repaid over 20 years, said Brian Pena, the city's water and sewer commissioner. He said the work will add $1.4 million to the annual debt payments by the Water and Sewer Department, increasing the department's total annual debt payment to $6.7 million, or about one-third of its $19.6 million budget.

The debt service for the earlier two projects has been paid out of the increased revenue the department has collected since it installed new water meters, which are read remotely and are more accurate, and by the surpluses that accumulated in earlier operating budgets. The surpluses, called retained earnings, have dropped from $19 million two years ago to $11 million today.

The rates residents and businesses pay – $3.10 per 100 cubic feet of water and $3.35 per 100 cubic feet of sewage – have so far not been increased to pay for the work, but may increase in 2021, Pena said. He could not say how much. 

Columbia Gas repaired or replaced more than 40 miles of gas lines in Lawrence in the three months after the gas disaster. Pena said the city will take extra precautions to make sure none of the new gas lines are disturbed when crews reopen the streets to repair or replace the water and sewer lines.

Among the precautions, the city will require Columbia Gas to have staff on hand whenever excavation begins and any time gas lines shown on a plan don't match what's found in the ground, Pena said.

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