Cost increases and supply chain woes have again delayed progress on the Montgomery Drain project, the multimillion-dollar effort to keep contaminated stormwater out of the Red Cedar River.
The project has been in planning for more than a decade. During the course of its history, it has been beset by lawsuits and questions about how local governments would cover its more than $30 million price tag.
Now, after being under construction for a year and a half, the project is facing challenges as the county looks for ways to stay within budget without compromising the goal of reducing pollution.
Between 50,000 and 75,000 pounds of pollution enter the Red Cedar River each year from sources like car exhaust, road salt and lawn fertilizer, according to Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. The new storm drain system, which is designed to filter the water naturally, would reduce that pollution by at least 90%.
Earlier this year, Lindemann was optimistic the drain would be complete by early 2022. But he now expects construction to wrap by the end of next year, including landscaping and trail work at Lansing's Ranney Park.
"Everything north of Michigan Avenue is going according to schedule with some rough bumps because of supply chain issues, but I think we're going to probably be on time overall," he said. "We've got a full year of construction left to go."
Some areas of the project are expected to be up and running by early next year, including a mile of trails at Ranney Park, which has been closed during construction.
The cost of clean water
Original estimates for the cost of the project were around $35 million. That overall total was to be split between Ingham County, Lansing, Lansing Township, East Lansing and the Michigan Department of Transportation over a 30-year period.
Lansing is paying 64% of the cost, or about $22.3 million. To cover its portion, the city created a drain tax and special assessment for properties around the Montgomery Drain. The drain tax started being levied in January.
If the cost of the project goes up, residents can expect to see an increase in the citywide drain tax and an increase in the special assessment tax for residents who live within the drain district, said Andy Kilpatrick, public service director and acting city engineer for the city of Lansing.
The taxes to pay for the drain are already being levied because a significant amount of the work has been started, Kilpatrick said. Although there are residents included in the special assessment who may not have had construction work started near them, the fee is tied to the financing of the overall project.
Any future changes in the cost of the project are dependent upon what bids the county receives for incomplete work. Lindemann stressed that it's still unclear if costs will increase at all.
"That overrun that could happen is because of the COVID impact on the supply chain," he said, citing the increase in the cost of plastic piping as an example. "We're trying very hard to stick to the $30 to $36 million mark."
Frandora Hills resident Dan Dekker called the project controversial, and questioned why residents were being taxed before all the costs of the project were known.
”If they’re going to plan a budget, they should get some bids before they start assessing residents,” he said.
Lindemann acknowledged that the cost increases aren't ideal, but said the county can't wait any longer to fix its storm sewer system. He sees the Montgomery Drain project as the most cost-effective way to do that.
"The infrastructure is falling apart," Lindemann said. "If we were going to take 90% of pollution out of the system by building a wastewater treatment plant down on the old golf course site, it would cost us $100 million."
Frandora Hills sanitary sewer
While the county is overseeing the Montgomery Drain project, Lindemann also is working with Lansing to replace some of the sanitary sewer system pipes in Frandor Hills.
The projects, though separate, are being coordinated because they're located in the same area.
The sanitary system pipes are more than 50 years old, Lindemann said, and because they're made of concrete and often carry acid and other strong chemicals, they've started to deteriorate. When the county inspected the pipes, Lindemann said they found that several of them were broken and had taken in sand and dirt from the surrounding area.
"The City of Lansing sanitary sewer system is in desperate need of repair," he said. "Because we're putting in and replacing some of the storm pipes, the city saw this as a good chance, once we have the street opened up, that we can just put them in for them."
That work, along with road work along U.S. 127, was originally part of a bid package for the Montgomery Drain. That bid wasn't approved by the city because the cost was too high. This spring, the city plans to rebid those projects separately to see if it can get a better price and more control over the timeframe of the work.
Lansing is still trying to figure out how to best coordinate work on the sanitary sewer system and the road with the Montgomery Drain project, Kilpatrick said.
"That's really what we're trying to evaluate right now is what makes the most sense, both for construction coordination and also for cost," Kilpatrick said.
The sewer system and road work are separate from the Montgomery Drain project, Kilpatrick emphasized, as are the funding sources. The sanitary system for Frandor Hills is not part of the special assessment or the citywide drain tax.
The city still plans to move forward with the work on the storm sewer, the sanitary sewer and U.S. 127. If the timeline changes so that the sanitary system and U.S. 127 cannot be completed at the same time as the county storm drain, Kilpatrick said there may be a fractional cost increase for the city.
"I don't think those prices will be so high that we would not move forward with them," Kilpatrick said. "If (the assessment) goes up, then we will just have to work with the drain office to reduce the cost on the project by working with whoever the selected contractor is. If not, once those costs are passed along to the city, we will have to figure out how to pay for them."
Residents won't see much difference in what work is being done, Kilpatrick said.
"From the public's perspective, they will see the same work type being done, regardless of who's overseeing the construction," he said.
Federal funding could help cover cost increases
Lindemann expects that the county will be able to put some federal money earmarked for infrastructure improvements toward the drain project.
"That's going to relieve a lot of pressure on us," Lindemann said. "The federal money that's coming down for infrastructure can subsidize, at least in part, some of these cost overruns because they're no fault of the taxpayers. It's part of the problem with COVID."
What still needs to be done?
There's still a significant amount of construction to be done in the next year, Lindemann said.
Pipes need to be put in the ground through the Frandor parking lot, and the rain gardens, which will be used to filter water through soil, need to be constructed.
Lindemann said it's essential to invest in this project and create a storm sewer system that will filter out pollution and last for a long time.
"We going to have to think smarter and design things a little bit differently to accomplish our goals, but we should never give up our goal," Lindemann said. "Nobody wants a dirty river."
Among the parts of the project that need to be re-bid are pumping, pipes and re-landscaping in Ranney Park, some circulation pipes and portions of Michigan Avenue.
"We'll do our very best to keep our costs low, but if we've got to pay more, we've got to pay more," Lindemann said. "It's just going to cost us more money in the end if we don't fix it, so we've got to bite the bullet and pay for it."
Contact reporter Elena Durnbaugh at (517) 231-9501 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ElenaDurnbaugh.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: More delays for the Montgomery Drain project