It’s time to think big

Guest Columnist

“We need to salve the national malaise born of our economic concerns with a healthy dose of positive thinking about our bright future — and a determination to begin paving the road to that bright future today.” So wrote Kathy J. Caldwell P.E., F.ASCE, the then-president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in Civil Engineering, October 2011.

As we approach one of our infrequent elections I note that the planners are still at it. That’s good. One aspect of our president’s policies that I endorse is the need to refresh the nation’s infrastructure — ‘shovel ready’ is the term he likes. We may have some of his projects right here. I thought that it might be both timely and prudent to replay for your reading a previous column of mine, now almost a year old (“The limits on growth?” April 23, 2011). It talked of the physical limits on growth right here. Just maybe the lessons are pertinent in 2012. Here goes:

Recent sewer line breaks beneath Gulf of Mexico Drive give, or should give, our town pause. Sewers and the pipes that carry sewage were installed in the early ’70s, approaching their 40th year in service. Line breaks are always a nuisance to all. They usually happen when least acceptable, in this case at the height of the “season” with accompanying peak flows. Weekend utility work taxes the public works forces called out to repair them. In this case the hard working employees dealing with the breaks did well. Costs, as yet unknown, are likely to be high.

These 40-year-old pipes are, by modern standards, approaching the end of their service life. In Plymouth, Mass., I recall that early American town still had cedar water pipes in service. That’s an exception to any longevity we shouldn’t count on here.

As the LBK Public Works director noted to the Town Commission in a candid report April 4, all sewer flows from south of Bay Isles Parkway must pass through the original 24-inch ductile iron pipe buried deep below the pavement of our only thoroughfare. The future development of the south end of the key may really depend on the viability of this vital lifeline. I don’t recall hearing anything about this potential utilities deficiency in the otherwise exhausting testimony about development there last year. This, in my experience, is within the essence of all good development, or redevelopment, or revitalization planning.

I hesitate as always to recall past glories. There might be a bit too much of those memory lane tales around here. Here goes, anyway. In my earlier life I was often in the facilities business both at home and abroad. In support of the mission we always looked at key measures, limits if you will, of infrastructure we used. I always looked at a few important items: water, where did it come from, how much, where did it go; power, who made it, how did it get to us, was it vulnerable; roads (lines of communication to my Army pals), where did they reach to and more importantly from, construction details, vulnerability; and finally that paradigm for all things civil engineers think about, drainage, where does the potential flood come from, where does it go, are we in control. These principles apply here as well.

Fortunately some people are looking toward the future, the future of our infrastructure. As I reported, first almost a year ago, and later a couple of months past, our public works staff has had a plan for some of our physical needs. We have completed the redundant connection to the city of Sarasota’s water distribution system — 1.0 million gallons per day at accost of $800,000. H2O transmission piping from Bay Isles Road south to New Pass has been upsized — at a cost of $4.0 million. This took advantage of stimulus funding. Lift Station ‘D’ our main sewage lift station — $1.5 million, Water South Key Modifications (across from the Chart House) at $3.0 million, Water Mid Key Modifications — at $1.3 million. You borrowed all this money, and then some.

There is a need for a future new subaqueous (underwater) crossing to carry water to our North End as the existing pipe hangs beneath the Longboat Pass Bridge. This might cost $1.2 million. We will need a new 20-inch force main (under pressure) to carry sewage to the Manatee County Southwest Regional Treatment Plant. This project at maybe $3.0 million will replace the 30-plus-year-old connection with a new three-plus-mile crossing under the bay. Divers are to inspect all our underwater lines this summer — vital.

Our sewage is pumped each day through 47 lift stations with two or three pumps in each. These are more vital infrastructure.

As you can see the costs of these projects, or future even larger ones, are significant. All of this means borrowing or increased utilities costs to us, the ratepayers. Similarly the town is on the hook to maintain and to eventually replace similar water and sewer lines, valves, pumps in many of our subdivisions, like Bay Isles. These are mostly newer than the town’s base system, but still are 30-plus-years-old. See the town’s Comprehensive Plan on this subject. Few of these needs appear in a town budget. Shouldn’t they?

Our water supply is likely OK absent a major increase in density. That supply is not now a limiting factor in growth planning. The cost of water may be another matter. Our Manatee County supplier is facing more likely and earlier growth “out east.” This means competition for the future supply. Fortunately our long-term contracts may protect us. Alternate H2O sources might again be explored, but these do not appear to offer much. Sewage capacity is not likely a limiting factor either, absent that increase in density. Contracts are protecting here also. That ability to move this sewage through ageing pipes looms as the critical factor.

The key’s highway access and internal circulation are severely limited within the existing corridor. Limits exist both north and south through constricted extensions of our corridor. We don’t control these. Several bridges are also limiting, both geometrically and structurally. One across from the Sarasota Yacht Club comes to mind. These need serious study. A third bridge across the bay to Longboat Key is an unlikely dream.

Power is not likely a controlling factor in future growth. The public utility, in this case FPL, should be brought into the process. Similarly for our gas supplier, TECO. Gas lines, while nominally plastic and long-lived, have been in the ground here for approaching 30 years.

Communications also are not likely a factor in growth. Technology is moving so swiftly that in any planning horizon better methods are almost sure to be in place. Towers are not likely to be needed.

These potential limits on growth here are all solvable problems. Serious planners should already be at work. Are they?


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