By Nic Custer
Rebuild Flint the Right Way, an ambitious plan released in August to repair, replace and upgrade the city’s infrastructure, outlines Mayor Karen Weaver’s vision for fixing the city in the wake of the water crisis. Implementing the plan might cost as much as $2 billion, the document states.
The plan asserts Flint residents should not have to pay for the proposed infrastructure improvements because of citizens’ lack of choice in the initial drinking water switch to the Flint River.
Instead it lays out financing by a combination of state and federal grants – some of which already have been allocated, and some of which are pending — including support from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Block-to-block strategy preferred
Among its many proposals, Rebuild Flint calls into question replacing pipes house by house.
Instead, the plan suggests taking a block-by-block approach and recommends ways to potentially replace or add other infrastructure alongside pipe replacement including streetlights, bike lanes, demolitions, storm water management and utility cables.
It states, “Flint cannot restore clean drinking water citywide through a piecemeal approach. The causes and instances of unsafe drinking water in Flint continue to be varied, dynamic and even unpredictable.”
The document, released by the Mayor’s office at her State of the City address this summer, suggests the work should also include:
- replacing exterior and interior infrastructure in occupied buildings,
- tearing down vacant structures,
- burying telecommunication and electrical cables,
- building new roads and
- building green infrastructure to manage storm water in roadside right of ways.
It suggests Flint needs a new water infrastructure system to end its water crisis because lead and corrosion have been deposited throughout the entire water delivery system, not just in homes with lead service lines.
More than two thirds of the houses with lead levels testing above the federal action limit of 15 parts per billion do not have lead or galvanized service lines, according to the plan. It also says that if the additional street infrastructure improvements are implemented while the city replaces service lines, that it will “present little to no increase in installation costs and offer long-term cost savings.”
How much it might cost
Estimates for replacing Flint’s infrastructure including water mains and service lines range from $715.6 million to $1.807 billion. The report states if all of the water line replacement involves excavation above ground repairs to rebuild roads, sidewalks and greenways, it may cost as much as $2.446 billion.
Replacement of interior plumbing in buildings, which owners would otherwise be responsible for, could cost as much as $310 million citywide. An additional estimate to demolish approximately 2,000 vacant buildings will cost another $112 million.
The plan states that a block-by-block replacement approach would make water service line replacement cheaper at each home, replace water mains and sewer lines, as well as guarantee clean water delivery to homes.
The report suggests that replacing infrastructure house-by-house may improve water quality but does not guarantee contamination issues will be resolved. It would also still require long term replacement of water and sewer mains and roads which would be damaged during replacement of water lines to each home. This approach also aligns with the city’s 2013 master plan goals and the new zoning codes being ratified, according to the plan.
State supports “holistic” approach
Rich Baird, who serves as the governor’s senior advisor and “transformation manager” in Flint, said that the state agrees that there needs to be a holistic approach to replacing water infrastructure instead of taking a piecemeal approach.
Baird said the state has been in support of Weaver’s plan to remove lead service lines and any galvanized lines that are also trapping corrosion. But he has several questions about how the cost estimates were determined that he had yet to ask city officials. He said the estimates to replace interior plumbing and demolish vacant buildings across the city seem higher than he would expect. In Detroit, for example, he said demolitions average around $7,000 per home.
The city of Flint’s 2015 report, Beyond Blight: Comprehensive Blight Elimination Framework estimated the average cost of residential demolition at $10,000 and the average cost of commercial demolition at $50,000. At these average costs, the price for 8,000 demolitions (7,500 residential and 500 commercial) would cost closer to $100 million but this figure is an average and does not take into account potential additional costs such as removing old water infrastructure to vacant lots.
Outside funds required to move ahead
While the city’s Fast Start program has replaced more than 33 service lines, the city has not received enough infrastructure replacement funds to meet the projected costs of replacing the entire system. According to the plan, the state of Michigan has committed $2 million in Fast Start funds to replace pipes for at least 250 homes.
Another $2 million has been committed by the MDEQ towards improving storm and waste water systems. The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $20 million to rebuild roads and replace adjacent water mains on Atherton Road between Dort Highway and Grand Traverse Street and on Dupont Street between Stewart Avenue and Flushing Road. Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) has awarded $13.9 million to the Land Bank for at least 1,000 residential demolitions in a final round of Hardest Hit demolition funds.
Pending funding requests are also listed in the report including an additional $25 million from state of Michigan for service line replacement. A $146 million request in Drinking Water State Revolving Funds is pending from the EPA to upgrade the Flint water treatment plant and replace water mains and service lines. HUD has a pending appropriation for $151 million in Community Development Block grants to rebuild water and sewer mains, replace water and sewer service lines, “replace compromised in-home infrastructure, and rebuild above ground infrastructure.” An additional $1 million is pending from MSHDA for owner-occupied housing renovation.
Roadway upgrades, underground cables planned
The plan calls for upgrading electrical and fiber optic telecommunications cables by burying them underground alongside new pipes. It states Consumers Energy spends up to $8.6 million per year repairing and maintaining aerial power lines. It also calls for repair of the city’s 592 miles of roadways, replacement of curbs to improve storm water management, the development of bike lanes, low-maintenance in greenways and a LED streetlight replacement program which could save the city $1.5 million annually in power costs.
Baird said his purpose working in Flint is to coordinate state, local and federal responses to help stabilize the water system. But it is also to coordinate medical responses and to improve longer term quality of life issues including safety, jobs and education. He said his immediate concern is getting the water stabilized and then once that occurs he can work on excavation and the necessary transformation of the water system.
“My hope is we will be successful working with state and federal government to help Flint get what it needs to have confidence in its water system,” Baird said.
Detailed maps included in the plan show the percentage of occupied properties with lead or galvanized service lines per block and the percentage of properties that tested above the federal lead action level. This data is based on MDEQ water samples from 10,985 occupied properties in Flint — one out of every three buildings.
Replacement over recoating
While the plan identifies recoating the pipes and not replacing them as a viable alternative, it advocates for service line replacement that uses the master plan principles to shrink parts of the water delivery system and would potentially create a reconnection fund for 500 vacant properties that can be reoccupied in the future.
It also identifies components that contribute to lead contamination and affect water quality which includes water mains, and both the city and homeowner portions of the service lines. Inside the home, water heaters, internal plumbing and faucets or fixtures such as shower heads can all lead to poor water quality once they have been compromised by corrosive water.
The Rebuild Flint plan and blight elimination framework are available for download on imagineFlint.com.
EVM Managing Editor Nic Custer can be reached at email@example.com.