City engineer Guy Cicon says Ninth Avenue will be repaired for the first time in 50 years—a situation indicative of the challenges he faces with the city’s deteriorating infrastructure.

City engineer Guy Cicon says Ninth Avenue will be repaired for the first time in 50 years—a situation indicative of the challenges he faces with the city’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Infrastructure deficit

The city's aging roads, water and sewer pipes have hit a critical point.

The city needs to spend twice what it does to keep its deteriorating infrastructure from degrading even more, said city engineer Guy Cicon.

“On average, the city expends $2 million a year on roads, sanitary, storm and water capital construction [not accounting for inflation],” said Cicon. He could make full use of that $2 million figure for roadwork alone, instead of the approximately $750,000 he receives.

With those budgetary constraints and a cost of $125/metre of asphalt, Cicon has to prioritize what stretch of the city’s 153 kilometres of paved roads need fixing up the most. Over the years, he’s learned to prioritize what he needs from council so that he gets most of what he asks for.

“It’s not like I ask for the moon and they give me a comet.”

One of the projects on the table for 2015 is repaving Ninth Avenue, a road that hasn’t been repaved since it was first done 50 or so years ago, Cicon said. Paving will take place between China Creek Road and Montrose Street at a cost of $175,000 (pending council review) for the paving and roadwork alone.

“We will replace the asphalt on a less than ideal base. The road will last, but it won’t last as long” as it would if the base were also replaced, Cicon said.

“We’re just not keeping up,” he added. “The work we do is superficial in terms of the roads.”

The situation below the ground is not much better.

At the end of 2013, the Port Alberni had 261 kms of sewers, 102.2 kms of which are for storm water alone while the other 158.8 kms are combined storm and sanitary sewers made of either  cement or PVC pipe.

Separating the combined storm water and sanitary systems has been an extended project for the city. According to Boyd Wong, a Port Alberni engineering technician, since the project’s inception in the late 1980s, approximately 40-50 per cent of the city’s sewers have been separated.

The reason for separating the storm water and sanitary systems is twofold.

Under regular conditions, the separate storm water lines drain out into the canal (Alberni Inlet) while the combined system is pumped to the sewage lagoon. Having storm water mixed in with the sewage increases the amount of liquid that needs to be pumped to the sewage lagoon, meaning increased wear and tear on the pump stations and more treatment up at the lagoon.

During heavy rains, the situation worsens.

“During rain events the pumps can’t keep up so we have combined sewer overflows [into the canal],” said Wong, adding that the city is trying to separate the sanitary and storm water lines before the province imposes stronger regulations on the amount of allowed overflow.

As well, while the overflow that ends up in the canal is heavily diluted, having the two systems combined means that some sewage ends up in the canal. Port Alberni is not the only city to allow some untreated sewage to end up in the waters off Vancouver Island; Victoria allows all of its rawsewage to flow into Juan de Fuca Strait.

While separating the storm and sanitary systems is important,  budgetary constraints mean that the city can only do a limited amount each year.

Even when the city is able to separate the two lines, they still need cooperation from residents on that street. Unless the lines are separated at the very beginning (where the houses tap into the system), the sanitary lines will still function as combined ones. As the process is expensive and must be paid for by the homeowner, Wong says that residents usually only upgrade to the separated system when doing other repairs.

Another effort to both save on expenses and be more environmentally friendly is the gravity force main that the city installed in 2005. Located just before the tracks at Johnston Road, it eliminated the need to pump sewage from the part of North Port above the tracks. Instead, the sewage is carried by gravity down Southgate Road and to the sewage lagoon. The rest of the city’s sewage is handled by five pump stations, two on the southern half of town, two on the northern and one off of River Road. From the pump stations the sewage is sent to the sewage lagoon, which in 2013 treated an annual volume of 5,818,926 cubic metres, down from 6,897,032 cubic metres in 2011. The reduction in volume can be linked to the city’s continued separation of storm water and sanitary systems.

Any money that can be saved means more money for sewer and water system priorities, from clogged to leaking pipes to complete water line replacements.

Anything from debris—both gravel and from houses—to roots growing in from either above ground openings or cracks in the pipes can clog the pipes.

The city commissions videos of the inside of the sewer pipes, which lets them attend to clogged or cracked pipes before they cause a more severe problem.

“Water mains that are leaking too much you can go down and just patch, it leaks again you go down and patch and it leaks again and you go down and patch,” Cicon said. “The cost of operating and maintaining those patches at some point would exceed the cost of going in and replacing that water line.”

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While the city’s infrastructure isn’t at that point yet, it could become an issue in the future if nothing changes.

“We’re not at a crisis situation but without investing in the replacement of our older deteriorating assets the demand for repairs accumulate,” said Cicon, adding that “there’s a lot of infrastructure that was developed in the 1950s that’s coming to the end of its life.”

One piece of infrastructure that’s nearing the end of its life is the water line underneath Neill Street, between 14th and 17th avenues. The water line has broken four or five times in the past few years, Cicon said. While the city’s not at a crisis point, “projects like these do indicate that this underground pipe network is nearing the end of its life.” The cost of replacing the water line will be approximately $225,000, again pending review by council during the budgeting process in early 2015.

While he’s repaving Ninth Avenue, Cicon also hopes to separate the combined storm water and sanitary lines underneath Ninth Avenue at a cost of $80,000 for each line.

The Ninth Avenue roadwork, storm and sanitary separation and the Neill Street water line replacement are slated to cost $560,000 altogether, already over a quarter of what Cicon receives from the city on average.

Between roadwork and paving, sewers, storm and water, Cicon’s total request for infrastructure improvements will cost $2,690,000, not counting $2 million in Harbour Road Route Phase 1 construction that would be taken from borrowing, but is unlikely to go through in 2015.

It’s unlikely that he’ll get all of the funding he’s looking for, something that’s been occurring for years as the city struggles to find enough money to keep its infrastructure in passable shape.

“The concern with delaying improvements to the infrastructure for a  long period of time is that we won’t be able to effectively manage the replacement with the tax levels that the people provide,” he said.

Concerns over the delay mean that water and sewer rates will increase in an attempt “to try to meet the expenditures required for the replacement of this deteriorating infrastructure.”

But for now and for the foreseeable future, Cicon will continue to pick and choose what’s necessary, what can wait and for how long.