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News Commissioners incensed over sewer cost over-runs

The southern half of the Little Tennessee River Greenway has been closed for many months due to construction of a new sewer line that has come to a halt after settling occured in the soft river bank soil. Photo by Vickie CarpenterSoft subsoil ups construction costs over $170,000

A $4.5 million sewer line project being funded jointly by Macon County and the Town of Franklin has run into problems that will likely lead to significant cost overflows. The issue, which brought a halt to progress on the project in December, means the southern end of the Little Tennessee River Greenway may remain closed for some time to come.

With the project currently at 65 percent completion, engineers say that a section of the planned sewer line along the bank of the Little Tennessee River passes through soil that is much softer than expected and which will require additional and costly stabilization measures.

At a meeting on Tuesday, some members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners expressed the feeling that the engineering firm overseeing the project, Asheville-based McGill Associates, should have done more preliminary assessment before beginning the project to avoid some of the potential cost over-runs. The commissioners were also concerned that other unforeseen problems may bring the project significantly over-budget.

Since construction started more than a year ago on the new sewer line, there have been a number of unanticipated obstacles and delays. Already, $22,000 has had to be taken from the contingency fund to cover costs associated with an accident involving an old sewer line which was severed last summer and with a decision to upgrade a portion of the line in Franklin from 8- to 16 -inch line. The current change order for additional costs incurred and anticipated due to soft subgrade foundation means the county and the Town of Franklin will have to fork out another $170,631 from the contingency fund, which will leave it almost exhausted.

County Manager Jack Horton noted at the board meeting that the actual construction of the project had begun a little more than a year ago, and was originally scheduled to have been completed in January. Horton explained that the project has been on hold since the middle of December while engineers studied the problem of the soft river bank.

Currently, nearly 65 percent of the $4.5 million project has been completed. The extensive project begins with a gravity-fed sewer line stretching from downtown Franklin near the Nikwasi mound, along the Little Tennessee to Cartoogechaye Creek, up to a pump station by the Whistle Stop Mall. From that point, the line becomes a forced mainline running to a pump station at the Industrial Park on Hwy. 64 W. The county and the Town of Franklin obtained nearly $3 million in grant funding for the joint project. A lowinterest loan was obtained for the remainder of the costs.

According to Mike Waresak, senior project engineer with McGill, geotechnical consultants have advised stabilizing the trench at the current problem areas south of Wells Grove Road, by lining it with additional stone gravel as well as a high-density plastic mesh and filter fabric. These “beefed up” trench stabilization measures may also be necessary at other areas along the river, Waresak told the board.

“It’s all very expensive,” Waresak acknowledged. The reinforced section included in the current change order is anticipated to cost nearly $162,000. While additional sections may need to be reinforced before the line is completed, Waresak told the board that the route of the sewer line varies in its distance from the river meaning that it may not require the same treatment in all areas. Part of the change order also includes $37,500 in downtime costs accrued since December for equipment sitting idle by Gary Grading, the project contractor.

In answer to questions from the board, Waresak said that some test “borings” of the soil were done before the project was bid in order to make an assessment of the scope of the project. However, since at the time of the assessment the county and the town had not acquired all of the necessary easements for the project, borings were only done at road crossings and other accessible areas.

“We’re eating $170,000 because we didn’t recognize that the soil was soft down by the river. My question is ... Why should we have to pay for that?” —Commissioner Bob Kuppers

“We did take the measurements that we could,” Waresak said, adding that the firm had anticipated unstable soil along the river, but that settling after the 24-inch pipes were laid revealed that the soil was even softer and less stable than predicted.

On Wednesday, Horton said that getting easements for the project had been one of the factors that delayed beginning the project for several years. McGill Associates may have perceived that the lack of easements limited their ability to do soil testing in areas of the project, Horton acknowledged, but he added that had property owners been approached at the time, they probably would have granted permission for such testing.

Commissioners express frustration

During the board meeting, Commissioner Ronnie Beale expressed frustration at the unforeseen sewer line construction costs. He noted that after the current deductions, the project will have less than $30,000 left in its contingency budget for future unforeseen costs.

“We do think there are going to be more problems,” Waresak told the board. He added that after discussions with the county manager, it was decided not to do further test borings which could provide an assessment of future problems, but which would also incur additional costs of as much as $20,000. No additional engineering fees were included in the change order.

Horton noted that the original construction bid was $4.8 million, which was renegotiated to $4.4 million. The change order brings that price back up to $4.5 million. In response to a question from Commission Chairman McClellan, Horton said that there might be additional loan money for the project available to the county and Franklin.

McClellan noted that whether or not further test borings were conducted, the project would have to be completed and costs covered, but he also asked whether additional testing could save money in the long run.

“If we’re going to get bad news, I’d like to get it all at once,” Commissioner Bob Kuppers told Waresak. “I really hate one surprise after another after another.” He added that since there is a high probability of future problems that it would be best for the board to be aware of the worst case scenario for cost over-runs.

“We hired you as an engineer to look out for these things for us,” Beale told Waresak. He added that it was not the first time Macon County taxpayers had experienced cost over-runs with McGill, referring to a sewer line at the Clarks Chapel Bridge crossing the Cullasaja River near Macon Middle School which washed out twice before it was finally re-engineered and reinforced at a cost of more than $200,000 to the county.

Waresak acknowledged that more testing could have predicted the problem, but said that further costs had been avoided by putting the project on hold in December to investigate the issue.

“You are the engineers. You are the ones who are truly responsible here. True or false?” Beale asked Waresak.

“If we’re frustrated, it’s because we have been down this road before, and we’re over a barrel,” said Kuppers, adding that at this point in the project the county had no choice but to find the necessary funds to complete it.

“We’re eating $170,000 because we didn’t recognize that the soil was soft down by the river,” said Kuppers. “My question is ... Why should we have to pay for that?” He suggested that the firm should do more testing along the river and take responsibility for the costs.

Waresak estimated that completion of the project would be within another 120 to another 150 days or by the end of June.

Kuppers made a motion to “begrudgingly” accept the change order which passed 5-1 with Beale voting against. Beale asked Waresak to have estimated costs for the worst case scenario by the next board meeting on April 12.


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