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City leaders push to accelerate stormwater infrastructure planning and get shovels in the ground

Civil engineers work on new stormwater mitigation projects in Parkfairfax (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

A discussion of one of the city’s larger stormwater infrastructure projects spurred a question from city leaders: can the city do more to make these projects happen faster?

Adriana Castañeda said at a City Council meeting last night that the city is a little over halfway through the design process for the Commonwealth, Ashby, Glebe Flood Mitigation Project, one of the largest stormwater infrastructure projects in the city — outside of the immense AlexRenew project.

According to the city’s website, the plan is to add parallel relief sewers to Commonwealth Avenue and East Glebe Road, increasing storm sewer capacity and leading to a new outfall to discharge flows into Four Mile Run.

Castañeda said design for the project began in 2022. The 60% design concept stage is scheduled for February 2024, with the design completed in July 2025. Construction is scheduled to start sometime in April 2026 with the project completed in January 2028.

The total estimated cost for the project is around $50 million. The project design costs $8.1 million, taken from the FY 2022 budget, with construction funded in the FY 2023 and FY 2024 budgets at $26.4 million and $12.6 million, respectively.

Alexandria has recently had problems with projects taking too long between the planning and construction phases. City leaders promised in 2020 to try and speed up stormwater management improvements as the city is continually battered with severe flooding.

“Four years of design, two years of construction,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “It seems, obviously, this is not the only project we have this going on with: do we have options to accelerate design on these projects? Are there other construction methodologies we should be using to speed up design? It seems like we spend so long going through design processes on these major infrastructure projects.”

City staff said the Commonwealth, Ashby, Glebe Flood Mitigation Project was already somewhat accelerated, with the planning process compressed into the design phase. Staff said things like surveying, understanding constraints on a site, and more are usually done before the design phase.

Wilson said his concern is some of that work is taking longer than it needs to.

“I feel like there’s got to be a way on some of these projects to compress this design, because it seems like we’re spending a heck of a lot of time and a lot of money in this phase,” Wilson said. “I understand you don’t want to short circuit any of that work, it’s important work and it dictates success and failure later on in the project, but it seems like if there are some better ways to do that quicker. I’d love to have that conversation.”

City Council member John Chapman said there have been regular conversations with staff about how to accelerate some of those processes.

“It’s not something that hasn’t come up,” Chapman said. “It’s something staff continually looks at and how to quicken the pace on certain projects.”

Wilson said the other consideration, in terms of saving money on these designs, is whether it would be worth creating an in-house team to handle it.

“Given that we have now made a long-term commitment to a pipeline of projects and investments in this area, are these the types of resources we look at bringing in-house and does that become more efficient?” Wilson asked.

Staff said during the meeting that it’s recommended to continue using outside design firms, which can have teams larger than city staff departments, and that it’s not feasible to keep that level of expertise as in-house staff.

Beyond the cost, Chapman said the time delays have real impacts for city residents.

“One of the concerns my colleagues are bringing up is something we’ve heard from the beginning in terms of timeline,” Chapman said. “We understand there are going to be incidents and rain and flooding in between, and that’s why we consistently talk about moving up the schedule and seeing what opportunities can be done.”

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