City officials studying report on malfunctioning Washington Boulevard floodgates
September 27, 2016 12:31 AM
A car sits partially submerged during flooding on Aug. 28 along Washington Boulevard in Pittsburgh's East End neighborhood.
The scene of deadly flooding on Aug. 19, 2011, on Washington Boulevard.
By Adam Smeltz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An independent reviewer has finished an evaluation of floodgates on Washington Boulevard, which failed to drop into place Aug. 28 amid rising storm water, but city officials won’t reveal its contents until they study it further.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s staff said it is working to understand the findings from Bronder Technical Services of Prospect before making them public. At the same time, Mr. Peduto said emerging plans to control runoff across several key locations could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, likely at some expense to Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority customers.
Projects to subdue storm water in the Washington Boulevard-Negley Run area alone could top $200 million and take years to complete, according to a PWSA presentation before Pittsburgh City Council. Mr. Peduto said including “green infrastructure” such as earthen gutters, or bioswales, should help limit the expense.
“It’s 100 years in the making, and it’s 20 years in the solving,” Mr. Peduto said about the localized flash floods that swamp the city during heavy rain. He said the goal is “a system where the water never goes into the broken system we presently have, [so] there won’t be as much of a need for massive pipes — which means it will cost less.”
The administration has collaborated with PWSA over the past year on a storm water control approach, looking to hold more rainwater in place instead of rushing it through overburdened sewers, or “gray infrastructure.” Worsening overflows from the decades-old underground infrastructure lead to basement backups, roadway flooding and raw sewage spills into local waterways.
A preliminary plan that PWSA introduced Monday centers on four areas in addition to Washington Boulevard: Four Mile Run, the East End, Saw Mill Run and Streets Run. Drawings show a variety of rain gardens, water-penetrable pavement and retention facilities, including Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park.
That landmark could be retrofitted as a reservoir for storm runoff, said James Stitt, the sustainability manager at PWSA.
“We’re also looking at this as a way to create jobs,” Mr. Stitt said about the “green infrastructure” plans. The efforts should help buoy property values and recreation, among other benefits, he said.
The authority is working toward a final storm water management plan that’s due at the federal Environmental Protection Agency by Dec. 31. It’s to be part of an amended consent decree between the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority and the EPA, which has targeted a September 2032 deadline for projects to reduce storm water gushing into Alcosan pipes.
Those flows can mix with untreated sewage from homes and businesses, at times pushing the foul blend into local rivers. Alcosan may have until 2036 to comply with a federal order slashing the wet weather sewage discharges — an effort expected to reach the $2 billion range.
“We want to make sure everyone understands that we’re not in this alone,” said Kevin Acklin, Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff, who noted that Alcosan includes more than 80 member municipalities. PWSA officials said the anti-flooding ideas explored in Pittsburgh should be useful for nearby communities with related overflow problems.
Meanwhile, city authorities are exploring state and federal sources to help pay for flooding-related improvements, such as changes eyed for Washington Boulevard. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation installed a floodgate system there after rising water in August 2011 killed four.
But the gates failed to move into place when the thoroughfare flooded last month, and emergency responders had to rescue several motorists. Bronder, the city contractor reviewing the matter, reported earlier this month that control units for the gates had been switched off.
The company found a number of other failures, including dead batteries and key parts that needed replacement. Public Works Director Mike Gable received Bronder’s final report Friday, although the city does not yet have cost estimates or a timeline for repairs, he said.
Bronder did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Mr. Gable said a controller for one gate appeared not to be working, and a radio relay or similar device had been left unplugged after an earlier problem.
“The whole system wasn’t a failure. Signals were in good shape,” he said. “ ... The real issue was the gates themselves.”
Mr. Gable said city workers are prepared to block Washington Boulevard manually if floodwaters rise again in the meantime. Illuminated warning signals at the site still work, according to the city.
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