Naked City

Fixing a Hole

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Laying new water and sewer mains is ugly business in any neighborhood, but in a tony enclave like Tarrytown, the clamor of heavy equipment can seem especially disruptive. For over a year now, residents have forbearingly detoured around gaping trenches and breakfasted to the rhapsody of beeping machinery, but as the digging continues three months beyond the project's estimated finish date, some wonder what's taking so long. They've seen caved-in trenches and heard about special pumps being installed in homeowners' yards to push sewage uphill to the new mains. Was this bad planning?

No, responds the city -- in this particular operation, it was necessary to inconvenience the village to save it. The old water pipes, which service roughly 70 homes in the hills between Exposition and Town Lake just north of Enfield, date from the Second World War and were due for replacement. But Water and Wastewater Dept. officials say the new pipes couldn't be installed along the old routes, which typically ran past the downhill side of homeowners' lots, because in the last 50 years people have put up fences, built garages, and even expanded their homes over the easements. So the city is placing the new mains under the streets, uphill from many houses, sidestepping lawsuits from homeowners and creating a system that will be easier to service.

The downside, of course, is that toilets won't flush water uphill, and that has necessitated deep cuts through hard rock and sand -- not only under the streets, but right through residents' yards -- to drop the pipes low enough to drain sewage away from houses. Moreover, outdated maps meant backhoes occasionally had to do exploratory surgery in the yards to find sewer connections. The job crews are doing their best not to unduly disturb them, residents say, and though they're sick of the construction, most are philosophical about it. "It's a hassle," says West Austin Neighborhood Group president Blake Tollett, "but it's just terrain and bad maps, and that's something you're going to find in any of these old neighborhoods."

No one's more ready for the job to be over than the project's contractor, Ted Stewart of Key Enterprises, who says that collapsing sand and other delays have buried much of his profit. The city's planning team wasn't at fault for the problems, Stewart says, and he's been compensated for time lost while the city negotiated agreements with homeowners to dig on their property. But things could have been easier, Stewart says. At two residences on Bridle Path, for example, Stewart is faced with the chore of cutting 20-foot-deep ditches through loose soil, not far from the spot where his crew struck quicksand and had a ditch cave in on them a few weeks ago.

The city and Stewart have run into disagreements about how to handle such obstacles. Stewart argues that installing injector pumps and laying the connecting lines uphill is a safer alternative to digging so deeply. Alternatively, he adds, the old pipe could be inserted with a new lining and then tied into the new system at a point downstream. "The city has already allowed us to leave old line in place [at other points] ... and they've already approved injector pumps at two other lots. ... That's what makes sense [here]," Stewart says.

But Water/Wastewater assistant director of engineering Reynaldo Cantu says his department never offered injector pumps, which homeowners would be responsible for maintaining, as an alternative to a gravity system, except to connect guest houses. Stewart acted outside his authority by approaching homeowners with that idea, says Cantu. "Ted was meeting with residents without discussing these issues with the city and telling them, 'This is what we're going to do.'... It is inappropriate for a contractor to change the design of the project without consulting the project manager. That is just a basic no," says Cantu.

The city did consider placing a lining in the old pipe at one of the problematic Bridle Path residences, but has since ruled the option out. Cantu says his department has negotiated solutions fairly with Stewart, but that the city isn't about to let Stewart out of any work dictated by his contract. Stewart doesn't dispute that the city has been mostly fair, but maintains that a little common sense from the city could have helped spare residents the intrusion of his equipment. "There's a simple way of doing some things, but they don't want to do it," he says.

The city says it expects the remaining work to be completed by the end of December.

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Tarrytown, Water and Wastewater Dept., sewer, West Austin Neighborhood Group, Blake Tollett, Ted Stewart, Key Enterprises, Reynaldo Cantu

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