PORTLAND — The City Council voted to speed up a costly sewer project Monday, deciding to fix most of the overflow points that dump raw sewage into Portland’s waterways in 15 years. City staff had recommended spreading the work – and the cost – over 25 years.

The sewage project, which will cost $170 million and triple most homeowners’ sewer rates, even surprised several representatives of the Friends of Casco Bay who had turned out to urge the council to step up the pace of a project that is already three years overdue.

“The council listened,” said Joe Payne, baykeeper for Friends of Casco Bay. “They’re ready to say, ‘We’re done with dumping raw sewage into Casco Bay.’ “

The city’s public services staff had suggested a 25-year timetable for the work, which will end most of the sewage overflows that occur in heavy rain. But councilors said they think the project, which will dramatically decrease the amount of sewage that goes into the bay, needs to be done sooner.

The city signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1993 to close most of the overflows, which are relief valves that keep the sewer system from backing up when heavy rain is combined with sanitary sewers.

Because most of the city’s household and industrial waste flows through the same pipes that carry storm runoff, heavy rain can overtax the system, creating the need for overflow points that allow both rainwater and raw sewage to run into Casco Bay, the Fore River, Portland Harbor and Back Cove.

But the work to create separate lines for the two types of sewage has run behind. By the time the official deadline for fixing 33 of the 39 overflows passed in 2008, only nine had been done. And the projections for the rest of the work topped $500 million.

Now, city officials have come up with a system that relies on underground storage conduits to hold the sewage and storm water in heavy rains until the city’s water treatment plant can catch up, cutting the cost to $170 million.

The plan also uses “green” methods, such as “rain gardens” which are designed to absorb rainwater and allow it to flow into the ground rather than running into catch basins.

Payne and others said a 25-year timetable would stretch out the work until at least 2038 — the new phase of the project begins in 2013 — more than three decades beyond the original agreement for closing most of the overflows.

“Twenty-five years is too long,” Payne told the council. “It’s going to be inherited by our kids and grandkids.”

The council considered and ultimately rejected a compromise proposal to do the work over 20 years.

It also considered asking city staff members to work up cost estimates and work schedules showing how the project would be handled if the timetable was for 15, 20 or 25 years.

Ultimately, however, they went with the faster fix.

“We’re going to have to pay for this sooner or later,” said Councilor David Marshall.

It will actually be homeowners and businesses paying the bill, however, through higher rates that will pay off the bonds used to borrow the money.

City projections are that either the 15- or 25-year plan will triple rates and a typical homeowner’s sewer bill will rise from about $400 a year currently to about $1,300 once the full impact of the bond bills kicks in.

The 15-year plan plan means bills will hit that point in about eight years.

The tax break vote was delayed by several lengthy public hearings Monday night.

Councilors are considering a tax increment financing plan that would allow the developers to get back about $31 million out of more than $56 million they will pay in property taxes over 30 years if the $100 million project, The Forefront at Thompson’s Point, goes through.

The developers said the TIF would allow them to cover high costs from developing the site, which contains marine clay and will require piles to be driven about 100 feet to reach bedrock.

They are also including several public enhancements, such as a 700-car parking garage, that will be made more affordable by the tax break, the developers said.

The project as proposed will include two office buildings, a hotel, an arena/convention center and a concert hall in addition to the garage.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]