A global pandemic is not stopping forward progress on RiverRenew, a project that aims to overhaul the city’s sewer infrastructure that is annually dumps 11 million gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River.
The project is the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history, with a price tag that increased last year to an estimated $464 million. The project recently cleared its environmental assessment by the National Park Service that was required because portions of the project run through Jones Point Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway and the bed of the Potomac River.
“The National Park Service (NPS) has completed an environmental assessment for Alexandria Renew Enterprises’ (AlexRenew) proposed RiverRenew project,” AlexRenew said in a press release. “The NPS (Regional) Acting Director… signed a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the RiverRenew environmental assessment on April 14, 2020.”
This #TunnelTakeoverTuesday, AlexRenew and the National Park Service announced the Finding of No Significant Impact…
Posted by Alexandria Renew Enterprises on Tuesday, April 21, 2020
The environmental assessment outlined several points of concern, like potential erosion and sediment, damage to historic parks, and noise generation. In each of these instances, however, the “no action” alternative that would result in continued dumping of sewage was considered more damaging and would violate legislation requiring the city to take action.
City Manager Mark Jinks said in a recent budget meeting that the project, being managed by AlexRenew, is not impacted by cuts made in the city’s budget.
The press release said that construction is planned to start this December — slightly earlier than had been initially scheduled — and is expected to last through mid-2025.
Image via National Park Service
As Alexandria’s Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) project RiverRenew starts making progress, it’s looking increasingly likely the project’s cost will approach the half-billion dollar mark.
During an update at the City Council meeting on Dec. 10 (Monday), Mayor Justin Wilson said the price will be towards the upper end of the $370 to $555 million price range.
“We’ve been able to refine the pricing… the numbers do not ever get smaller, they get bigger,” Wilson said. “The current estimate is around $464 million. Those numbers have gone up.”
The massive infrastructure project — the largest in the city’s history — was an unfunded mandate from the state legislature. The state will require Alexandria to completely overhaul its centuries-outdated sewer system by July 1, 2025, to prevent sewage from flowing into the Potomac River during rainstorms.
The good news, for Alexandria, is that since the initial mandate the state has started putting some funding into the project. The General Assembly adopted a budget earlier this year that included $25 million for the project. This year, Wilson said the city government is back requesting $75 million more.
“We will hear in a couple of weeks whether there’s money in the governor’s budget,” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Wilson said three design-build teams have been shortlisted for the project, and will have to submit proposals for the project by Feb. 11. From there, Wilson said it will be a pretty quiet year in terms of news on the project as Alexandria Renew Enterprises chooses who is awarded the contract. The goal, Wilson said, is to have a design selected by December 2020.
“We still have a substantial amount of work to do,” Wilson said, “[but we’ve] made a lot of progress.”
Photo via Alexandria Renew Enterprises/Facebook
It has been years since the City Council has been giddy during a meeting discussing its state legislative package.
For the first time in decades, there is a Democratic majority in the Virginia legislature, which is a boon to the city’s all-Democrat council.
Mayor Justin Wilson previously told ALXnow that the win opens up doors for several longstanding city goals, like more free-reign to control local financing. At a City Council meeting last night (Tuesday), some of those goals took shape in a draft of the city’s legislative package.
Every year, the city assembles a selection of local requests for Alexandria’s legislative representatives to take to Richmond. Proposals have ranged from increasing the minimum wage to changes in the minutiae of preschool management, and most of the requests were ignored or shot down by the Republican majority.
“As everyone understands, this is going to be quite a different General Assembly session,” Wilson told the City Council. “That’s certainly a very exciting thing.”
Officials warned, however, that the city had to exercise some restraint to ensure that most of the goals would be approved.
“This is a clear double-edged sword for us,” Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, told the City Council. “The opportunities are really good. The legislature and our delegation will be able to do some really great things, but we have to be very smart and very strategic in how we approach things.”
Taylor said the city priorities were broken up into three categories:
- State investment in infrastructure
- Protection and expansion of local authority and funding for localities
- Access, equity and equality
The big ask for the infrastructure investment is assistance with the RiverRenew project, the largest infrastructure project in Alexandria’s history and the result of an unfunded mandate by the state legislature. The project is estimated to cost between $370 and $555 million. It secured some funding earlier this year, but the city is requesting $65 million more.
Taylor said state Sen. Richard “Dick” Saslaw (D-35) asked for $75 million. Several members of the City Council noted that they wouldn’t say “no” to higher funding than what they requested.
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means local authorities can only exercise powers expressly granted to them by the state, but several of the items in the legislative package aim to pick away fractionally, like granting localities the right to regulate firearms in government buildings and property.
“There’s a lot that could be done with local authority,” Taylor said. “There are a lot of pieces that could be done incrementally.”
Other specific asks in the legislative package include:
- Incrementally raise the minimum wage in Virginia to $15/hour
- Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment
- Allow voters to use an otherwise valid but expired photo ID
- Amend the Virginia Constitution to establish the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission
- Additional state funding for K-12 education
- “Red flag” gun control laws and stronger background checks
- Broaden the coverage of the Communications Sales and Use Tax (CSUT) to include audio and video streaming services and prepaid calling services
- Comprehensive tax reform to allow more types of taxes and reduce reliance on property taxes
- Add Alexandria to the list of localities where a state income tax credit is available to landlords accepting Housing Choice Vouchers
- Full restoration of funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for local transit projects
- Legislation that will allow the city to increase recycling rates in our community and reduce the use of plastic bags, single use plastics and Styrofoam
A public hearing on the legislative package is scheduled this Saturday, Nov. 16. Final adoption of the package is scheduled for Dec. 12 with the legislative session beginning Jan. 8.
“To undo the amount of damage that has been done to the Commonwealth — to move the Commonwealth forward to a more progressive agenda — we may have to roll up our sleeves,” Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein said. “We’re playing with house money and let’s clean up.”
“Gambling is still illegal in Virginia,” Wilson was quick to note.
“Well, maybe we can get a bill on that too,” Seifeldein said.
Staff photo by Kalina Newman
RiverRenew has a lot of tunneling to get through and not a lot of time.
Over the city’s objections, the state has required Alexandria to completely reform its sewer system by 2025. The city has assigned that task to Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew), which in been pushing forward with RiverRenew — the largest infrastructure project in Alexandria’s history, estimated to cost between $370 and $555 million.
The pieces of the project are coming together, but the clock is ticking. Caitlin Feehan, program manager for RiverRenew, said that experience from other tunneling programs puts the estimated construction schedule at four and a half years, which includes accounting for construction delays.
To accomplish the project before the deadline, Feehan said her team is working to get as much of the red tape checked off simultaneously.
“It’s a realistic timeframe for construction because the phase we’re in right now… we’re going through the process of simultaneous planning, preliminary engineering and permitting,” Feehan said. “It’s putting a lot of stress in this stage but ensures a realistic timeframe.”
Environmental assessments earlier this year helped establish the plans for building tunnels underneath Old Town to carry sewage to a new pumping station at AlexRenew’s Water Resource Recovery Facility at 1800 Limerick Street. The pumping station — which will run 150 feet below ground — was approved by the City Council in September.
There were some concerns earlier this year that the federal government shutdown could hurt the timeline for the environmental assessment, Feehan said, but the program was able to work with the National Park Service to keep the process moving forward.
“It’s a challenge to make sure we’re on schedule,” Feehan said, “but [we have an] experienced staff that knows how to mitigate risk.”
Feehan said various teams will come in, go through the process of finishing out final designs for the project, then get permits
Currently, construction is scheduled to start in mid-2021. Feehan said teams will use a state of the art tunneling machine that will be drilling 100 feet underground — deep enough that the underground activity should cause no disruption on the surface. RiverRenew will also be working simultaneously on the new pumping station to ensure that the project is ready to go online as soon as the tunnels are ready.
The final result, Feehan said, will be sewers that capture 98% of discharge sewer flow — as opposed to dumping millions of gallons of sewage into the Potomac River when it rains — putting the city sewer system in compliance with the state’s demands.
Top photo via Alexandria Renew Enterprises/Facebook