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Laying the foundation for growth: The story of Project 9

A 3.2-kilometre sanitary sewer line may not be the most eye-catching of infrastructure projects in St. Albert’s history, but local politicians feel Project 9 was crucial for the city's future growth.

A 3.2-kilometre sanitary sewer line may not be the most eye-catching of infrastructure projects in St. Albert’s history, but local politicians feel Project 9 was crucial for the city's future growth.

Officially known as the Phase 3 North Interceptor Trunk Line Project, the multi-million-dollar project got its start a few years ago and construction is finally starting to wrap up. At the moment, costs sit near $19 million, with the final number expected to come in around $21 million.

The city has already front-ended $10 million for the project and approved borrowing up to $20 million to help cover it – one of the few times the city has taken on debt to finance infrastructure projects.

In June 2016, the council of the day voted unanimously to borrow money for the project. It was a decision Coun. Wes Brodhead remembers.

“The mantra was always growth pays for growth,” he said. “That’s true enough, in a sense. Sometimes you have to create the environment to let that growth happen. When there’s a project that is being undertaken of this magnitude that will open up the fortunes of the city, then people should get excited about it. Problem is, nobody really gets excited about sewers.”

Back in 2015, when the project was first being considered, councillors were presented with five options to fund the project, including relying on developer-led funding or raising the money entirely through tax increases. Council ultimately decided to borrow the money to cover the project, which at the time was estimated to cost around $40 million.

The city has a plan to borrow up to $30 million for over 20 years, with the remaining $10 million being covered by offsite levies. But when bids closed, Shanghai Construction Group (Canada) Corporation's bid came in at $20 million. With the expected cost estimated to be lower than originally estimated, it’s not clear if the city will cover the entire project through borrowing or a mix of the two.

The project’s importance lies in its ability to move more unwanted waste, since the current sanitary sewer line is reaching capacity and wouldn’t be able to handle additional areas the city plans to grow in.

Developers, especially those in and around South Riel, pleaded with the city to move forward with Project 9. Most notably, Reisa Schwartzman, president of Vancouver-based developer Cape Construction, urged the city to get the project going.

The project relies mostly on underground tunnelling, with shafts popping up over the years along Sturgeon Road and elsewhere along the sewer line's route. Once completed, the line will help support development on St. Albert's west side as well as in South Riel, and connects the sanitary sewer system north of the Sturgeon River with the lift station at Sturgeon Road and Sir Winston Churchill Avenue.

Project 9 was originally scheduled to wrap up in November 2018, but fell six months behind schedule due to equipment and weather delays. A cold snap in January 2018 shut down work on the project, and to top things off a microtunnelling machine that was supposed to be used for the project got stuck in a tunnel in Edmonton. With the machine no longer available, the company had to build a new one in China. This delay ultimately caused the completion date to be pushed back to 2019.

The city avoided taking on extra costs from the delay by requiring the contractor to cover those.

Coun. Sheena Hughes, who was also on council during the initial discussion of Project 9, said it was a necessary project to move forward.

“There was no more room for poop in the pipe,” she said. “As a result, the city had to move towards (Project 9) as a priority so that new development could occur. It was really at the tail end of what we were able to do. This now just simply allows it to go back to being a possibility to develop.”

Former mayor Nolan Crouse said development in the city’s west was going to be hampered if council didn’t get the project moving forward. The real challenge, he said, was how the city planned to fund it. Crouse agreed with Brodhead that the philosophy council took at the time was to make sure developers paid for the growth they were doing.

“If you don’t have developers pay for development, then the current taxpayers really start to subsidize the private sector,” he said. “There was always an argument that if you borrow money to pay for development, then you are subsidizing the development industry. That would have been the case because the development industry wouldn’t have to pay for the water and sewer that they need to pay for.”

He said no developer was interested in doing something like Project 9, so it then rested on the government to put the sewer line in. Crouse added growth drives a lot of infrastructure needs in the city, so the mantra of ‘growth pays for growth’ should remain – otherwise the burden shifts onto the taxpayers to foot the bill.

With that being said, completion of Project 9 is expected sometime this month or mid-June.

Larry Galye, senior project manager with the city, said all the tunnelling is completed and there are only two shafts left to finish.

“After that, we’re into seasonal restoration,” he said. “Right now we’re starting to do some of the repairs at the other locations where the shafts were located. We’re starting to do the concrete repairs on shafts nine, 10 and 11, which are on Sturgeon Road. As soon as that’s done, we will be going into shafts 12 and 13, which are the ones just off of Boudreau Road to the east.”

He added the trails behind the botanic park are closed again after being temporarily open to accommodate the 2019 RunWild Half Marathon. He hopes to have the trails back open to the public by the end of May.

Galye said the delay ultimately benefited the project because the new tunnelling machine was built to specifically deal with St. Albert. While the company could face penalties for the delay, he said at the moment the city isn’t pursuing those because no additional costs were added to the project.

All of this is, of course, weather dependent, he added.

Jeff Labine

About the Author: Jeff Labine

Jeff Labine joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2018. He writes about city hall and municipal issues. Follow him on Twitter @jefflabine.
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