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Tosa's Meinecke flood project could cost $2 million more than expected

Some residents say the project is news to them

May 17, 2012

The price tag for Wauwatosa's largest public works project came in $2 million over budget.

Despite the disparity, the city's Board of Public Works recommended approving the low contractor bid of $14.4 million for the Meinecke Avenue flood mitigation project and sending it to the Budget and Finance Committee to find a way to bridge the funding gap.

The decision was made Monday among a room packed with residents, some pleading with the city and their neighbors to support the project in hopes of preventing the flooding that has caused extensive damage to their basement following heavy rains.

What project?

Others who were hearing about the project for the first time asked the city to hold up the process.

"It's unfair to say whether we're for or against the project at this point," resident Christine Riley said. "This is the first information we're getting."

Riley learned of the project by chance. She was gardening in her yard a couple of weeks ago when she noticed a utility worker marking the ground in front of her property, so she asked him why. She said he was shocked to learn about the pending massive project, which calls for new storm and sanitary sewers and water main, road and sidewalk paving and street and traffic light replacements.

She quickly started alerting neighbors and called city staff and elected officials to get some information. She had a petition with 50 signatures asking for a neighborhood meeting so residents could learn about the project before contractors were hired.

Notification process

Riley counted amount about 25 homeowners in the 2300 block of North 90th Street - a main route that will experience significant disruptions - who didn't get official notice of the project from the city because of Wauwatosa's special assessment policy.

The city sends out notices when a property is going to be specially assessed for road or sidewalk projects, City Engineer Bill Wehrley said. The road in the 2300 block of North 90th Street will be torn up as part of this project, but the property owners were already assessed for a resurfacing project about three years ago so the city didn't want to charge them again.

Some property owners who did receive special assessments said there was no mention about the massive scope of this project beyond street resurfacing.

Big pipe, limited space

Plans call for more than doubling the size of the stormwater pipe by installing one that is 10 feet in diameter, which would be the biggest under city streets, Wehrley said. That only adds to the complexity of the project, which has to be designed to also accommodate a new water main, a main sanitary sewer pipe and two twin sanitary sewer lines serving the local homes - all in a limited amount of space.

Couple that with other elements of the project that face space challenges. In a pre-bid meeting, city staff also learned from contractors that large backhoes will be needed to move around the immense pipe and some trees would have to come down to provide access.

Initially, 240 trees were slated for removal, but that has since been reduced to about 60 trees along 90th and North Avenue. Wehrley worked with the city's Forestry Department to identify which trees would have a lesser impact if they are removed.

Flooded by impatience

City Finance Director John Ruggini said he worried more about the negative impact to property values related to flooding then to loss of mature trees. He made the motion to recommend the bid "to keep the project moving."

The project has been in the works for years, with the Common Council voting to lift the borrowing cap to take on large-scale infrastructure improvement projects.

Several residents in the area of 86th Street and Meinecke Avenue, where the street creates a large bowl and flooding has been at its worst, said they couldn't wait any longer for the relief this project could bring.

"I can't sleep when it rains. The rain means flooding," said resident Laura Mierow, who has seen her home flooded six times.

She was cleaning up from a flood in summer 2010 when a bigger storm hit only a week later bringing more than six feet of water - or, more precisely, 40,000 gallons of sewage - into her basement. She had to move out of her home for several days, then slowly pump out the water so the foundation wouldn't collapse. Black mold started setting in.

Other neighbors told similar story of property damage. (One resident even sustained an injury, while pumping out water, that required back surgery.) Without the sewer improvements, their homes as well as those in the greater neighborhood won't sell, they said.

Wehrley said he would never make any guarantees that the project would prevent future flooding. However, if the results live up to consultants' expectations, flooding would be greatly limited, at least at the severity levels of storms Tosans have already endured, he said.

Next step

WHAT: The Budget and Finance Committee will talk about the $14.4 million price tag of the Meinecke Avenue flood mitigation project

WHEN: 8 p.m. May 29

WHERE: City Hall, 7725 W. North Ave.

At a glance

The following is a history of the Meinecke Avenue flood mitigation project.

1986: A significant flood came due to what people considered a 100-year storm. The home now owned by Laura Mierow on 86th Street and Meinecke Avenue had a wall collapse from the water pressure.

1997: A second 100-year-flood results in hundreds to thousands of homes experiencing basement backups and surface water leaking in.

1998: Another storm moves the city to bypass pumps to bypass sewage to the river.

2004: Rain throughout May didn't cause local flooding but, combined with the sewer overflows from neighboring communities, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's system is overwhelmed. MMSD is forced to discharge into Lake Michigan numerous times, resulting in state mandates to limit overflows. Work to meet those mandates are ongoing.

2008: Another major storm forces city staff to realize they can no longer describe the rain as a 100-year storm. The Meinecke area had a large number of the 340 properties that reported water in basement. A public hearing was held and the city identified sewer improvements as a priority for this area.

2009: Another heavy storm results in 250 homes flooding, many on Meinecke Avenue.

2010: An initial storm left 150 homes with water in basement. A week later a 500-year-flood poured sewage into 600 homes. Major thoroughfares such as State, Lloyd and Center streets and North Avenue were closed due to flooding severely impact emergency vehicle access. A public hearing was held and money allocated in the Capital Improvements Program.

2011: The Meinecke Avenue flood mitigation project gets held up due to the complexity of plan designs, the work with Milwaukee County for right of way acquisition and the workload on the city's Engineering Department.

2012: Project designs are finished and the low project bid comes in at $14.4 million. If the project starts this summer, it could take 16 months to complete.

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