Traverse City Record-Eagle


May 22, 2013

Editorial: Sewer investment could pair with road repairs

Over the past few years Traverse City has been wisely spending a lot more on street repairs than it had for decades, finally tackling some of the city’s more ruinous streets and sidewalks.

Spending has risen from a miserly $100,000 a year to $1.25 million. But even at that level it’s estimated it will take 20 years to rebuild or repave all the streets that need work.

Now there’s an intriguing proposal to use that annual $1.25 million outlay to pay the interest on $10 million or $20 million in bonds and do 10 or 20 years’ worth of work at once.

If the city borrowed only as much as the $1.25 million it is now spending on streets would allow, paying off those loans (in the form of bonds) wouldn’t cost more than is being spent now but would immediately bring smoother streets and less wear and tear on residents’ vehicles.

But before the city buys in, there are other needs to consider.

City residents are likely going to see their base sewer charges jump more than 6 percent beginning in July, in part to pay to replace older, deteriorating sewer lines. Many of those sewer lines lie beneath city streets, and the condition of the sewer plays a role when the city decides which streets to fix, said City Manager Ben Bifoss.

The more money the city pumps into roads, the more it also needs to replace sewer lines There also are operational cost increases the city has to address, Bifoss said.

City commissioners have ignored past recommendations for sewer fee increases, but appear ready to approve a hike from $32 to $34 a month.

Obviously, sewer and road needs are parallel, and it’s best to tackle both jobs at the same time when the ground is disturbed and traffic already disrupted.

The city would be best served, perhaps, to put off any road bond decisions until it can create a master sewer/streets plan that looks at both sets of needs for the next five or 10 years and plans spending that way. When sewer lines break they have to be fixed now, and so does the street. While breaks can’t be predicted, they can be anticipated because of the age of the system. Pairing preventive sewer replacement work with a street repair program could save time and money.

As the economy continues to improve and property values increase, the city will have more money to spend on infrastructure and be better able to invest in not just street repairs but a long-term bond.

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