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Staten Island Sewer Project Stuck in the Drain for 24 Years as Climate Change Ups Stakes

When Rudy Giuliani was being 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 $10.7 million project planned under a three-block stretch of Willow Avenue in Rosebank is finally set to begin construction in early 2022.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Barry Catherwood as he stood outside a sign manufacturing site a block away. He said he’s seen cars abandoned by drivers who got stuck in flood waters.

Critics say the longest-delayed project overseen by the Department of Design of Construction (DDC) shows how mayors for decades have failed to improve and repair the city’s 7,400 miles of antiquated sewer pipes.

The historic downpour brought by remnants of Hurricane Ida — more than seven inches in some parts of the city — swamped sewers, including ones that flood even during routine rainstorms.

The storm, which killed 13 people in New York City, most living in basement apartments, underscored the danger of massive rainfalls in an era of climate change where the city has largely focused resiliency efforts on protecting people from Sandy-like storm surges.

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

“But even with that, the costs for infrastructure renovation and maintenance in the city is too high and delays are too common,” said Bowles.

‘A Major Nightmare’

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

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

Still, during a City Council hearing last month, DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza said the city has no immediate plans to revamp its entire outdated sewer system, despite the flooding that hit some spots that weren’t previously overwhelmed by intense rains.

“It’s physically infeasible. It’s going to cost $100 billion,” Sapienza testified.

Instead, the de Blasio administration seeks to build 11,000 so-called rain gardens to absorb storm water. City officials said they also plan to take more aggressive action to warn New Yorkers in flood-prone areas before anticipated storms.

The city did not close any roads or ping New Yorkers’ cell phones with cautions about the storm. Eleven of the Ida victims died inside their basement apartments.

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

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

In Staten Island, which was devastated in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy, some residents were hit hard by Ida. Some are still trying to fix their homes.

On Willow Avenue, the storm didn’t cause as much damage as some had feared, but nearby areas were badly flooded, according to local workers.

For years, the building hardest hit on Willow Avenue was owned by Richard Masucci of Prompt Direct, a mailing company. Masucci would instruct his employees to move their cars before every storm.

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

“For the people who own the property, it’s obviously been a major nightmare with their insurance companies and the damage,” said John Guzzo, who serves on the community board covering the area and lives nearby.

‘Finite Amount of Resources’

DDC says the long-delayed sewer project in the area is an outlier due to a series of unforeseen factors, including land contamination.

Installation of storm sewers underneath Willow Avenue from Tompkins Avenue to Bay Street, a three-block stretch, is set to begin in the first quarter of 2022, according to Ian Michaels, a DDC spokesperson.

“It was handled in a bureaucratic but ultimately effective way,” said DEP Deputy Commissioner Andrew Hollweck, who noted “we cut off the project, the portion we were able to execute effectively.”

“This just never got green-lighted, probably because there’s a finite amount of resources, and it wasn’t a priority,” he added. “In the meantime, DDC year in and year out delivers about a billion dollars, give or take, every single year.”

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

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

Still, some longtime Staten Island residents say the area’s long-term needs are frequently neglected by Democratic mayors who don’t rely on votes from the primarily Republican-leaning residents.

“Every time it was supposed to be built DEP would pull the funding and put it into Queens or Manhattan and the politicians didn’t do anything to stop it,” said Guzzo.

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

‘Go All-In on Reforms’

The Staten Island sewer is not the only capital project that has taken the city years — and sometimes more than a decade — to tackle.

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

Those changes include better “front-end planning, project management, payment, avoiding change orders, and pre-qualifying contractors,” according to the Center.

“As a result, the average project duration decreased from 96 months to 90 months as of June 2020 — a promising achievement in a year and a half,” the report says.

But the good government group contends other city agencies, like the Office of Management of Budget, need to do more to speed along projects and keep costs down.

“This help is unlikely to happen without a strong push from the highest levels of City Hall,” the report says. “Indeed, more than any other single policy change, this report urges the next mayor to go all-in on reforms to the capital process by creating a new Deputy Mayor for Infrastructure.”

This article was originally posted on Staten Island Sewer Project Stuck in the Drain for 24 Years as Climate Change Ups Stakes

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