Our View: Delaying sewer improvements would be a waste

Our View: Delaying sewer improvements would be a waste

(File photo)

Look out Alexandria: It appears we are in for a lot of public building, and unfortunately spending, in the years to come.

A growing number of capital improvement projects have been either proposed or approved in the last 18 months, which altogether total nearly $1 billion Alexandria taxpayers eventually will have to fork over. The fees and taxes from these projects will make recent tax increases — like last year’s hike of 3 cents per $100 of assessed property value — seem like small potatoes.

An updated and accelerated sewer control plan is the latest big infrastructure project to be placed on the table. Alexandria’s sewer system is itself historic — but there’s nothing quaint, charming or appealing to visitors about it.

It dates back to the early 1800s and has been in need of an extensive overhaul for decades. But the price tag for correcting raw sewage outfalls from four points into the Potomac River is estimated to be more than $300 million.
This is on top of the staggering proposal from Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley just last month to spend more than $500 mil- lion on new capital improvement projects, including a tear down and complete rebuild of the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams.

These projects are in addition to the still unknown portion Alexandria will have to pay toward a new Metro station at Potomac Yard. We will go out on a limb and predict the city’s portion of this project will not be small.

And don’t forget that just last year, city staff informed council that many of Alexandria’s city-owned buildings were graded at a “D” or “F” level of repair and are in dire need of renovations. City Hall alone was estimated to need $53 million in re- pairs to simply reach a “C” grade.

When all of these projects are viewed together, it becomes clear that we are faced with taxation, borrowing and spending on a scale unprecedented in Alexandria’s history. This raises the question: “How the heck did we get in this situation?”

It’s becoming clear that in the past, our city’s leaders kicked the capital improvement can down the road for many years, applying Band-Aids instead of fully addressing needed renovations. So our current city manager, mayor and city council deserve credit for their willingness to tackle these important but unglamorous projects.

It’s also clear that we can’t simultaneously handle everything on the capital improvement table, no matter how compelling the need. And sadly, there’s urgency to each instance.

Historic City Hall, which is crumbling, is one of Alexandria’s treasures. It must be preserved for future generations.

Our schools are overcrowded. The Patrick Henry School rebuild, another new school on the West End and redistricting are projected to ease this issue at the elementary level for the foreseeable future. But T.C. Williams’ enrollment continues to swell, hence the need for the Minnie Howard campus rebuild.

And as the Potomac Riverkeepers pointed out during Saturday’s city council hearing, the Potomac River needs to be cleaned up — not in 2032, but now. It’s horrifying to contemplate another 15 to 20 years of raw sewage pouring from Alexandria into the river.

Our city staff and elected officials have their work cut out for them as they try to discern the greatest need from among these competing big-ticket items. The can that’s been kicked the longest is Alexandria’s sewer system. It may finally be time to stop kicking and pick it up.