Staten Island sewer project delayed by 24 years as climate change accelerates

When Rudy Giuliani was elected to a second term as mayor, his administration announced it would install a storm sewer in a flood-prone section of Staten Island.

Nearly 24 years later, the planned $ 10.7 million project on a three-block stretch from Willow Avenue to Rosebank is expected to finally begin construction in early 2022.

“This is ridiculous,” Barry Catherwood said as he stood outside a paneling site one block away. He said he saw cars abandoned by drivers stuck in the flood waters.

Critics say the most delayed project overseen by the Department of Construction Design (DDC) shows how mayors for decades failed to improve and repair the 7,400 miles of dilapidated sewer lines in the city.

The historic downpour brought by the remnants of Hurricane Ida – over seven inches in some parts of the city – flooded sewers, including those that flood even during routine thunderstorms.

The storm, which killed 13 people in New York City, most of them living in basement apartments, underscored the danger of massive precipitation at a time of climate change when the city has largely focused its resilience efforts on protecting people from Sandy type storm surges.

Sewer renovations are particularly difficult because there are several decaying elements under city streets, said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future.

“But even with that, the costs of renovating and maintaining infrastructure in the city are too high and delays are too frequent,” Bowles said.

“A great nightmare”

That hasn’t stopped the city from trying to fix some issues.

Some 207 projects are underway at an estimated cost of $ 555 million over the next fiscal year. Another 278 projects costing $ 2.3 billion are planned for the next three years, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Department (DEP).

Yet at a city council hearing last month, DEP commissioner Vincent Sapienza said the city had no plans to renovate its entire obsolete sewage system, despite flooding. which hit some places that were not previously submerged by heavy rains.

“It’s physically unfeasible. It’s going to cost $ 100 billion, ”Sapienza said.

Instead, Blasio’s administration is seeking to build 11,000 so-called rain gardens to absorb the rainwater. City officials said they also plan to take more aggressive steps to warn New Yorkers in flood-prone areas ahead of forecast storms.

The city has not closed any roads or pinged New Yorkers’ cell phones to warn them of the storm. Eleven of Ida’s victims died inside their basement apartments.

New York City’s sewer system dates back to the Dutch colonial era, although most of the waste was treated in outhouses, gutters, or ponds for much of the 19th century. After massive cholera outbreaks around 1850, the city began to build the vast system that is in place today. In 1902, most houses in the city had private toilets that were connected to the sewer system.

Some of the pipes still in place are over 100 years old.

Emergency responders are helping people evacuate their homes in Midland Beach, Staten Island, after Super Storm Sandy.
Ben Fractenberg / DNAinfo

On Staten Island, devastated in 2012 by Super Storm Sandy, some residents were hit hard by Ida. Some are still trying to repair their homes.

On Willow Avenue, the storm did not cause as much damage as some had feared, but neighboring areas were severely inundated, according to local workers.

For years, the hardest hit building on Willow Avenue belonged to Richard Masucci of Prompt Direct, a courier company. Masucci would ask his employees to move their cars before each storm.

The site is now owned by a beer wholesaler whose owner is seeking to lease a large portion of the property, according to a leasing agent.

“For the owners of the property, this has obviously been a major nightmare with their insurance and damage companies,” said John Guzzo, who sits on the community council covering the area and lives nearby.

“Finite quantity of resources”

DDC says the region’s long-delayed sewer project is an outlier due to a series of unforeseen factors, including soil contamination.

Storm sewer installation under Willow Avenue from Tompkins Avenue to Bay Street, a three-block stretch, is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2022, according to Ian Michaels, a DDC spokesperson.

“It was handled in a bureaucratic but ultimately efficient manner,” said DEP Deputy Commissioner Andrew Hollweck, who noted “we cut the project, the part we were able to run efficiently”.

“It just never got the green light, probably because resources are limited and it wasn’t a priority,” he added. “In the meantime, DDC, year after year, provides around a billion dollars, give or take, each year.”

Willow Avenue in the Clifton neighborhood of Staten Island, September 9, 2021.

The view along Willow Avenue
Clifford Michel / THE CITY

The long-stalled Willow Avenue project is expected to take 18 months, he added. If further soil remediation work is needed, National Grid has set aside an unspecified amount of money to cover this potential additional cost, according to Michaels.

The contractor, Huicatao Corporation, will install new storm sewers, replace and upgrade existing sanitary sewers, and replace approximately 1,500 feet of old water pipes.

Still, some longtime Staten Island residents say the region’s long-term needs are often overlooked by Democratic mayors who don’t rely on votes from predominantly Republican residents.

“Every time it was supposed to be built the DEP would take the funding and put it in Queens or Manhattan and the politicians did nothing to stop it,” Guzzo said.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo declined to comment on the ongoing project, further noting that DDC has promised to finally begin work early next year.

“Go all out on the reforms”

The Staten Island sewer isn’t the only investment project that has taken the city years – and sometimes more than a decade – to complete.

In April, the Center for an Urban Future released a report outlining the need to improve the process of building the city’s capital. The report credited DDC – created by Giuliani in 1996 to manage capital improvement projects – for instituting a series of reforms in January 2019.

These changes include better “initial planning, project management, payment, avoidance of change orders and prequalification of contractors,” according to the Center.

“As a result, the average duration of projects fell from 96 months to 90 months in June 2020 – a promising achievement in a year and a half,” the report says.

But the right group of government argues that other city agencies, like the Budget Management Office, need to do more to speed up projects and cut costs.

“This aid is unlikely to happen without a strong push from the highest levels of town hall,” the report said. “Indeed, more than any other policy change, this report urges the next mayor to undertake comprehensive reforms of the investment process by creating a new deputy mayor for infrastructure.”

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