Over the next four years, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's 66,500 customers will be hit with rate increases to help fund what officials described as direly needed capital improvements for a system where a large portion of the water- and sewer lines are more than seven decades old.
The board of PWSA unanimously approved a graduated rate schedule for 2014 through 2017, which will help fund an aggressive $150 million capital improvement plan that will address everything from problematic waterlines in Shadyside to a $28 million filtration system upgrade at the authority's water treatment plant.
"We have a big need for capital improvement in the system, not only to maintain but to improve it," said Jim Good, the executive director. "We have improvements needed at the water treatment plant ... the replacement of waterlines and sewer lines."
The average residential customer will pay about 20 percent more a month in 2017, with the largest increase coming in 2014. For a household that uses 4,000 gallons of water -- near the average -- this translates to an increase of $8.29 a month over four years, from $42.03 a month this year to $50.32 a month in 2017. Residential customers constitute about 60,500 of PWSA's customers. An additional 23,000 customers in the city -- mostly in the South Hills and the West End -- are covered by PWSA's sewer services but receive water elsewhere and will see marginal increases in their fees.
Larger, nonresidential customers -- including schools, hospitals and industrial operations -- will shoulder a larger portion of the increase that vary by category.
State Rep. Dan Deasy, D-Westwood, said the decision to raise rates was one the board made reluctantly after it consulted with an outside firm that specializes in studying rate structures.
"Nobody wants to raise rates, but we're not raising rates to give our employees a big bonus or anything like that," Mr. Deasy said. "We have critical needs that we need to have addressed."
Other board members could not be reached for comment or referred comment to Mr. Good.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement emailed from a spokeswoman that he supports the rate increase for the capital improvements.
"In order to improve and maintain operations and service, improvements must be made to repair and upgrade infrastructure. I support the Board's and staff's actions deemed necessary to address these critically important issues," the statement said. "Acting now will help prevent further damage and cost in the future."
After three straight years of rate increases, this was the first year that the authority held the line on rates after touting a major turnaround under the tutelage of Veolia, a private management firm that was brought in to remake the troubled utility. While the authority brought in additional revenue -- luring back a large industrial customer and finding cost-savings -- it also ran out of money to make capital improvements from a bond issue in 2008.
That meant that for this year, the authority has focused on saving money for mandatory, short-term fixes for emergencies -- repairing broken water and sewer lines, for example -- instead of investing in improvements that could prevent such problems in the first place.
"It's been a challenge to find the money to meet our needs and we've reserved [money] for emergencies," Mr. Good said. "We need to get ahead of the curve so that we won't be dealing with emergencies in the first place."
Mr. Good said about half of the water lines were constructed before World War II. The average age of a sewer line in the city is 70 -- and some lines were constructed more than a century ago. And the authority historically has done a poor job upgrading its infrastructure in a timely manner, leading to problems like water main breaks and sewer backups.
In additional to replacing lines, the authority is planning to upgrade components of its water treatment plant. Mr. Good said the sand filtration units, for example, are more than 20 years old and are beginning to deteriorate, meaning it takes longer to process water.
"My No. 1 priority is that we got to provide safe drinking water that meets state and federal standards," he said. The authority, he said, cannot afford to neglect the 100-year-old facility any longer.
About $18 million of the upgrades will speak directly to the authority's Wet Weather Plan -- a massive, inter-agency plan to address combined sewer overflows in order to comply with state and federal environmental standards. The plan is anticipated to cost the authority $123 million, but it's waiting for approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection before it implements other parts of the plan.
Combined sewer overflows occur when the sewage lines -- deluged with rainwater during a storm -- are overwhelmed, causing sewage to be released untreated into waterways. The authority plans to spend $9 million to put in diversion chambers that will filter solids out of the overflows before they're released into the river. The capital improvement program will also include a pilot project for green infrastructure improvements along Saw Mill Run.
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM