Just south of Morehead Street in Dilworth, construction crews work in an enormous hole, 30-feet wide and 30-feet deep. Wood slats and metal bands support the walls, like the inside of the world’s largest wine barrel. A pump sucks a pool of storm water out of the bottom. Cranes and dump trucks surround the hole, while a small machine tunnels at the bottom, moving forward about four feet per day.
"It’s a very large hole. Probably one of the largest tunnel shafts that’s ever been done in the Charlotte area,” says Freddie Young, project manager and vice president at Sanders Utility Construction, the contractor on the project.
Without closing the major road, they’re digging a tunnel underneath to install new, larger pipes to catch storm water in Dilworth.
“As the area gets more and more urbanized and more paved and so forth, there’s more surface water runoff,” says Young. “So, the more runoff you get, the bigger the pipes you need to have to handle that runoff.”
It took nearly 15 years to get this project underway, at a projected cost of up to $16 million.
It’s the largest Charlotte storm water project, but still just one, small section of the complex maze of gutters and pipes underlying the city, unseen, rarely given a thought, but serving a basic, essential purpose: It sloughs rainwater out of the city and carries it sometimes miles to streams, to prevent houses and streets from flooding.
But as pipes age and the city grows, the budget to repair and expand the system has not kept pace, creating a growing backlog of requests and no way to address them.
“The problems we’re seeing out there with our storm drainage infrastructure, like flooding problems, failures of pipes and other structures, it’s outpacing our available resources at the moment,” says Alyssa Dodd, spokeswoman for Charlotte Storm Water Services.
Right now, the city’s 85 highest priority projects, often roadway flooding, average a one-year wait time. Projects lower on the list can lag five years or longer. The largest projects, like in Dilworth, can wait 15. And the backlog will only increase, as Charlotte grows and decades-old pipes age, city manager Ron Carlee warned City Council last month.
“We are nowhere close to fulfilling the number of requests that we have,” Carlee said. “In fact, in one category we virtually have little hope of fulfilling those requests.”
The program has an annual budget of about $60 million a year. To keep up with requests would require more than doubling the budget, adding nearly a billion dollars over the next dozen years, according to city documents.
That doesn’t seem palatable either, says Councilman Greg Phipps, who chairs the city’s budget committee. He says they’ll need to find a balance in the upcoming budget.
“What we’re trying to figure out is what would it take for us to come up with enough funds to staff those things, get a better timetable than nine years out because that’s not acceptable to anyone,” says Phipps. “But then it’s also not acceptable what it would take to alleviate that backlog, what it would cost.”
Funding comes mostly from landowners, who pay a fee depending on the amount of impervious surface on their land—pavement, rooftop, etc.—things that don’t absorb water, but shunt into the storm water system. The city program only fixes issues either caused by or on city land, not problems isolated to private property.
Reaching a compromise between high cost and the growing backlog could include raising fees, but also cutting service, for instance no longer stopping in-stream erosion or yard flooding. But that carries risk, too, as unaddressed smaller problems can get costlier down the road.
Back at the Dilworth construction site, project manager, Freddie Young muses these kinds of public works projects aren’t glamorous, but they’re fundamental to our lives.
“People ride around every day on their infrastructure, and don’t realize what they have, and what’s needed to keep it smooth and happy and running for them,” says Young. “That’s what keeps their world safe for them, and keeps their houses dry, and makes it where they can turn their water on and flush their commodes, and have the civilized life that we have.”
Over the next few months, city council and staff will discuss how to sustain this particular aspect of our civilized lives.