West Virginia city officials discuss tapping federal relief money for water, sewer projects

WHEELING, W.Va. — Members of the Public Works Committee of Wheeling City Council discussed using money from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation to fund stormwater and sanitary sewer projects during a city council meeting last week, according to newspaper organization the Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register.

The city had been granted roughly $29.5 million in ARPA funding, and although there are strict criteria for its use, projects that are considered investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure meet one of the key criteria for this one-time pool of federal funding.

The city of Wheeling has around $280 million worth of sewer improvement projects that are part of its long-term water pollution control plan, an ongoing effort to upgrade the city’s aging system and address environmental mandates over the course of 20 years or so. City officials agreed that even if all of the city’s ARPA funds were to be used on sanitary sewer and stormwater improvement projects, it would barely put a dent in the overall, long-term needs of the city.

However, infrastructure investments have remained a high priority for members of city council, and since investments in sewer projects are eligible for the pandemic relief funds, officials began exploring the options available as it relates to the long list of pending projects.

“What we’re looking for is the most bang for our bucks,” said Public Works Committee Chairman Jerry Sklavounakis who attended the meeting. “That makes the most sense.”

Wheeling Public Works Director Russell Jebbia reviewed several pending projects that are currently needed but at this point are unfunded, such as replacing failing corrugated metal pipe installed decades ago in several neighborhoods.

The city has bonds in place to address current phases of the long-term water pollution control plan, which includes a myriad of projects that include major separations of sanitary sewer and stormwater lines. Wheeling’s aging underground infrastructure had many – and still has many – areas with combined sewer system lines, with wastewater flowing into the sanitary sewer system.

Because of environmental regulations, the city has had to eliminate combined sewage overflows or CSOs throughout Wheeling’s neighborhoods. With the CSOs not in place, raw sewage isn’t redirected into the creeks, streams and ultimately the river. However, heavy rains have often resulted in problems in some neighborhoods, with overburdened pipes causing sewage backflows into many residents’ basements.

The long-term control plan involves many sewer separations, which in most cases results in the creation of a new storm sewer system to take rain flow out of the sanitary sewer systems to reduce the burden.

While bond money has been targeted for control plan projects, costs of these projects – like other construction jobs affected by supply chain issues and the sputtering economy – are beginning to skyrocket.

City officials explored the possibility of using ARPA funds to cover the extra costs that go beyond the budgeted allocations for the next long-term control plan projects. System improvements in many neighborhoods could be very impactful with better stormwater management, officials noted, but most of these individual projects typically come with a big price tag.

“If we could collect a lot of stormwater and get it out of there, we can eliminate a lot of problems,” Jebbia said.

Jebbia reviewed several proposed stormwater projects that are on tap in neighborhoods throughout the city, from Warwood to Wheeling Island, South Wheeling and other parts of town.

“There are a lot of issues in South Wheeling,” Jebbia noted, outlining proposals for stormwater collection improvements along 22nd Street, 38th Street and 40th Street, each of which were expected to cost around $1 million.

City leaders reviewed a list of Water Pollution Control Division Phase III-B projects on tap that were proposed for ARPA funding. They included the Civic Center Siphon Replacement project, Bedillion Lane to Carmel Road at North Park sewer improvements, as well as work along National Road from Seibert Street to Edgington Lane, Lynwood Avenue to Edgington Lane, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, interceptor cleaning and general system improvements and planning.

The total cost of those projects approached $10 million, but Harris said the price tag for each in today’s construction environment is likely higher. A major Warwood Interceptor Improvement project was initially listed as a $3.2 million project, but Harris indicated that the scope of the project combined with elevated construction costs would likely put that project at between $8 million to $10 million today.

“That has turned into a major project,” Harris said. “It’s woefully undersized for that type of flow.”

Jebbia added, “These numbers are just ballpark. Right now, the numbers are going through the roof.”

Committee members did not move to make a recommendation to council, noting that these were preliminary discussions regarding these vital projects. Regardless of whether or not ARPA funds will be used to move some of these projects forward, officials noted that they eventually will need to be completed one way or another.

City leaders had gathered suggestions from the public through the end of April on how the city should spend its ARPA funding allocation. City leaders are also expected to discuss their own proposals, and projects are expected to at least be put in motion in the coming months as the federal funding must be spent before the end of 2024.

In addition to infrastructure investments, the ARPA funding can be used to provide premium pay for essential workers, respond to the far-reaching public health and negative economic impacts of the pandemic and replace lost public sector revenue, according to the U.S. Treasury Department guidelines.

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