Portland's Sewer Repairs: Evidence that More Extensive Is More Expensive

The Oregonian's Ryan Kost reports on Portland's massive project to replace aging sewers in several of its historic neighborhoods. With a price tag over $150 million, it's a good reminder that it's crucial to consider the long-term costs of infrastructure maintenance and upgrades in growth choices.

All infrastructure fails eventually, and it's taxpayers and ratepayers who must foot the bill.

Kost writes:

All told, about 2,500 miles of sewer lines run beneath Portland's streets, and about a third of them are more than 80 years old. Given that most sewers have a shelf life of about 100 years, the city faces a massive reworking of its infrastructure.

"We're just doing the worst of the worst," said Bill Ryan, chief engineer in the city's Environmental Services Bureau. Still, "we've got a lot of sewers to fix.

These costs are only growing, as inner neighborhoods' sewers reach the breaking point.

To put the scale of the project into perspective, Portland is expected to spend an average of $30 million a year on repairing and replacing pieces of the sewer system during the second phase -- and a third that will follow. Before, annual costs were typically closer to $8 million.

Even so, the work will focus only on the 2 percent or so of the city's system that is identified as being within "five years of ultimate failure."

Kost quotes Sy Adler, an urban planning professor at PSU (who spoke at a 1000 Friends event in Salem in May 2012), about why these costs are rising so suddenly:

Between 1890 and 1920, many U.S. cities underwent a dramatic growth spurt, said Sy Adler, an urban planning professor at Portland State University.

"This was a period when cities began to grow very, very rapidly," he said. Industrial development was booming across urban America; people were being drawn from rural areas."

Portland was no different. As the city grew, so did its infrastructure. Hundreds of miles of sewers were built -- with the added complication that many constructed during the world wars were made with poorer quality cement, so they're nearing the end of their life cycle as well.

Now U.S. cities are struggling to keep it all working. In a survey of water utilities by consulting and engineering firm Black & Veatch, respondents cited "aging water and sewer infrastructure as the most important issue" facing the industry.

While Portland's inner neighborhoods are older than those of many Oregon cities, it is important to note that all infrastructure reaches its breaking point eventually. The Portland neighborhoods whose sewers are now being replaced are relatively compact compared to many ubdivisions and business areas around the state built after World War II.

When the bill comes for replacing or upgrading these sewers (not to mention roads, utilities, and other essential pieces of infrastructure) the bill will be much higher. A startlingly high number of Oregon cities already can't pay their infrastructure maintenance bills. And in sprawling neighborhoods, infrastructure serves fewer residents per mile, meaning that the per-resident replacement costs are even higher.

That's why it's urgent that future growth decisions include the long-term costs of infrastructure operation, maintenance, and upgrades--to save taxpayers millions and protect essential city services.

1000 Friends explored this phenomenon in our recent report, More Extensive Is More Expensive. Learn more and download the report, and help us get the message to your elected officials.

Read the full Oregonian article here.