Capital needs piling up

Published 12:07 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Smithfield facing millions for infrastructure

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

The town of Smithfield has millions of dollars’ worth of pressing infrastructure needs lying in wait beneath its surface, according to Planning, Engineering and Public Works Director William Saunders.

And it has no plans for how to deal with them.

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Saunders, who was appointed director of the department this past fall, presented the Smithfield Town Council with a daunting list of what he called “a whole lot of alligators,” a plethora of water and sewer improvements that have been long untouched by the town and are poised to “come up and bite you.” They include sewer and water line replacements around the municipality, as well as potentially town pump station upgrades.

At a Town Council retreat Monday, Jan. 22, Saunders stressed the need for developing a capital improvement plan for the town that could map out funding for major projects over the next five, 10 or 15 years. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Much of the town’s spending of late, according to Saunders, has been reactionary.

“A lot of it had to do with some entities willing to make a donation and we need to match, and we jumped at it when we got the opportunity,” Saunders said of town spending. “But a lot of that is reactionary and not planned.”

The Town Council has been largely focused on donation-heavy projects over the past year, such as the multimillion-dollar Joseph Luter Jr. sports complex slated to go along West Main Street. It also allocated $2 million in town funds for the restoration of historic buildings at Windsor Castle Park. Both projects received significant financial backing from Smithfield Foods.

“We really, I think, need to get back to a planning culture as it relates to our capital improvements,” said Saunders. “Unfortunately, a lot of things we need to spend a lot of money on are not as glamorous as sports complexes and historical estates.”

The statement elicited some murmuring from Town Council members at the meeting.

“What?” said Councilman Randy Pack.

Saunders said that a CIP would allow for better prioritization of infrastructure projects.

In recent years, the town has replaced water mains on South Church Street and Main Street, “but really, those were prompted by the paving of the road,” said Saunders. “So while it’s great to prioritize infrastructure improvements under the road when you’re ready to pave one, it’s not necessarily the most critical infrastructure to be replaced. So I think we need to get ahead of that a little bit and really look at what the infrastructure needs rather than just replacing it as we get to paving it.”

One of the pressing “alligators” on the list of improvements lies under Grace Street in downtown Smithfield, according to Saunders. The street’s pavement regularly breaks up.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has announced plans to repave the entire length of the crumbing state-owned street, but plans to rebuild the street from scratch by first cutting it down 18 inches, according to Saunders. That would hit most of the town’s shallow water and sewer lines.

“It’s sorely in need of it,” Saunders said of the repaving on Grace Street, “but we have water mains under that road that are decades old and the sewer main does not cover the extent of the road.”

Multiple private laterals that also need to be corrected are spread out haphazardly on the road, going across some yards to get to others, according to Saunders.

The town has gotten VDOT to understand its dilemma with the street and delay the paving, according to Saunders, but it doesn’t have money readily available to deal with the issue.

Saunders estimates that the infrastructure work just on Grace Street would cost $1.2 million and would take six to eight months to complete.

As for other looming projects, the town has not had any maintenance on its water tank in over three years, and the water main on the 300 block of Main Street is due for replacement, according to Saunders.

There is also a continuing debt service payment for its reverse osmosis plant, according to Saunders.

There is still $1.8 million owed on the plant, which is scheduled to be completely paid off by August 2022.

One of the largest items noted by Saunders was the potential need for pump station upgrades.

The town has been struggling with its pump pressures as its lines compete with Smithfield Foods to deliver waste to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District for treatment.

The lines are packing tight with gas — methane from the town, and nitrogen gas from the ongoing decay of the large pork processing company’s waste, according to Saunders.

The town has many small pump stations for its sewers, whereas Smithfield Foods has “one ginormous pump,” Saunders said.

“They have the means to pump it up to the point where we can’t get in,” said Saunders of sewage.

The result is the town having to continually utilize its backup pumps to force its effluent along.

“Environmentally, it’s not a good place to be,” said Saunders.

The cost to replace one pump is around $23,000, but in some cases, the entire system may need to be upgraded to handle a bigger pump.

“We’re looking at big picture challenges, and that’s definitely one of them,” said Saunders.  {/mprestriction}