The verdict is in regarding Alexandria’s antiquated sewer lines and it’s not what our elected officials wanted to hear.
The city has eight years to repair four outfalls that annually dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River, following the decision by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to sign House Bill 2383 and Senate Bill 898 rather than issue vetoes. In response, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson called this timeline “largely impossible.”
The outfalls saga has twists and turns that rival the Potomac River itself. It bears examining how we got to this point and what the decision means for the Port City.
This clearly is not a recent problem, which makes the truncated timeline even more galling. Old Town’s single line sewer system was built in the 1800’s, meaning heavy rains have resulted in raw sewage pouring into the river dating from when Alexandria converted from privies to indoor bathrooms.
Likewise, environmental awareness is not a new phenomenon. Previous city managers, mayors and councils could have fixed the outfalls, but instead punted. And if our current team of leaders – who to their credit were moving to repair the sewers before this General Assembly session – had preemptively opted for a shorter timeline than the almost 20-year schedule they had been planning, we might not be in this situation.
There’s also a political facet to this drama that is fascinating, if annoying. Gov. McAuliffe threw Alexandria’s elected officials under the bus when he refused to veto these bills. Every one of them – State Sen. Adam Ebbin, Del. Mark Levine, Mayor Allison Silberberg and all six members of city council – are Democrats like the governor and they had openly lobbied for a gubernatorial veto.
A generous reading of Gov. McAuliffe’s action would be that as an environmentalist, he couldn’t abide waiting any longer than eight years to remedy Alexandria’s pollution, and the fact that he sided with Republican legislators downstream rather than officials from his own party is a sign of leadership.
A more cynical take would be that the governor put his own future political fortunes – which certainly wouldn’t be enhanced by voting against well-publicized environmental bills – ahead of supporting Alexandria, despite our good-faith attempts to speed up the outfalls timeline.
This likely means Alexandrians are in for expedited sewer usage fee hikes, meaning more money out of residents’ pockets, sooner. This project is also likely to be much more disruptive to Old Town, as well as its residents and tourists with a faster timeframe for completing all four outfalls than if the work had been spread out.
And, as we are in the middle of budget season, it bears raising the poor track record our city has with completing capital improvement projects anywhere near budget. While mowing in parks is trimmed to save a five-figure sum, repeated building budget overruns cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The spending focus of our city leaders seems misplaced.
Alarmingly, there are no apparent concrete measures afoot to remedy this chronic problem, even though it may well be the most urgent fiscal element that is controllable. Though Councilor Tim Lovain earlier in this budget cycle raised the possibility of a city construction czar for schools capital projects, the idea went nowhere.
As council moves toward approving its budget, we wish it would stop quibbling around the edges and try to remedy the much more important issue of building cost overruns. If it could, residents might not have to dig as deep to pay for the sewer revamp.