Hoboken suffered its fourth water main break this year on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Fifth Street and Willow Avenue, which did not cut off water use all over town, but did suck a resident’s car underground.
“When there is a water main break, the soil erodes, creating a cavity that just swallowed up the car,” said City Spokesman Juan Melli.
“It’s a very serious issue.” – Ravi Bhalla
Before the recent break, on Jan. 4, a break occurred near the intersection of Observer Highway and Willow Avenue. On Jan. 14, another occurred on Second and Clinton streets, and on Feb. 15 another water main broke on Second Street between Washington and Bloomfield streets.
Hoboken’s aging water mains and infrastructure are just starting to be overhauled and upgraded. But why do the breaks occur, and what will be done?
Why the breaks keep happening
Some parts of Hoboken’s water system are over a century old. The cast iron pipes become brittle as they age, making them more prone to breaks caused by pressure fluctuations, vibrations, or changes in temperature.
In order to close a city budget cap in 1994, the city sold to United Water (now Suez Water) the right to make money off the water system. The 30-year agreement was made in exchange for payments totaling $13.2 million for budgets through 2001, an effort to keep taxes from rising higher in those years.
“We are victims of an agreement that was negotiated decades ago,” Bhalla said, “which solved short term budgetary problems but didn’t invest in long term needs, and its catching up today.”
“Hoboken is facing the result of financial mismanagement from the past together with a complete lack of investment in infrastructure going back decades,” said Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “Now that we have resolved the city’s serious financial problems, we are in a strong position to continue making long-overdue and critically-needed annual investments while also keeping our taxes stable.”
According to Melli, the city’s current contract with Suez Water only provides $350,000 a year for improvements, only enough for constant repairs.
With seven years remaining on the contract, city officials say they are in the midst of renegotiating with the aim of gaining more capital for improvements.
Councilman Michael Russo, who sits on the infrastructure subcommittee, said the city should aim high. Zimmer said in her State of the City address that she will ask them to start contributing $1 million a year for infrastructure.
“We are at $350,000 already,” Russo said, “and that goes to fixing water mains, so what are you gaining? If you start at $1 million and they negotiate down to $750,000, you doubled it… that’s maybe just a drop in the bucket.”
Russo said in the past he has requested information on Suez/United Water including all communications between the administration and the water company, but hasn’t received any.
“I was told to fill out an OPRA request if I wasn’t getting information fast enough,” said Russo. “That seems crazy to me. I am on the governing body.”
Bhalla said he believes the request was too broad and thus Russo needs to narrow his request.
Work has begun
Melli said work on some of the priority water mains has begun, as part of the proposed $17.5 million Washington Street redesign project. Last Tuesday, the city installed the first sections of 12-inch pipe to replace the century-old mains there.
Also as part of that project, all of the old water mains on Washington Street from Observer Highway to 15th Street will be replaced.
“It is important that the service lines be upgraded as well, so that we can prevent having to dig up Washington Street after it is newly paved,” said Zimmer.
Also, in August 2016, the City Council unanimously voted to bond for $5.2 million for water main upgrades to combat the breaks and flooding that have plagued the city. Former Business Administrator Quentin Wiest presented the water asset refurbishment program at that August council meeting.
He said that an engineering firm and Suez Water conducted an evaluation last year that identified 30 streets with 50 pipe segments that are the highest priority areas in need of refurbishment. The total estimated cost to fix those pipes would be $14.6 million.
With that $5.2 million, nine areas will be upgraded throughout the course of a year, but that’s only the first phase.
“The 6-year capital plan in the 2017 budget will have $5 million per year for each of the next six years for water infrastructure,” said Melli. “Combined with the $7 million for Washington Street and $5.2 million already approved it will total over $42 million in investments over 6 years.”
The 2017 budget for Hoboken spending from Jan. 1 through next Dec. 31 has not yet been introduced by the council, but will be at a future meeting.
“We are taking a proactive approach to repairing our century-old water system to make it more reliable and save money in the long run,” said Zimmer. “These priority upgrades are in addition to the replacement of the water mains along all of Washington Street and build upon our commitment to improve all aspects of our city’s infrastructure.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.