Several questions raised Thursday during a community forum about Fort Wayne’s deep rock tunnel project centered around money.
The crowd of more than 50 gathered at Unitarian Church at 5310 Old Mill Road to hear about Fort Wayne City Utilities’ plans for a 5-mile-long, 16-foot-diameter tunnel that will be constructed between 150 and 250 feet underneath the city.
The tunnel is a major component of the city’s efforts to meet an unfunded EPA mandate to drastically reduce the number of combined sewer overflows into Fort Wayne’s rivers by 2025. The tunnel will be able to store just under 37 million gallons during a high-water event, eliminating backups and overflow events.
It’s the largest public infrastructure project ever undertaken in Fort Wayne.
The tunnel will cost about $150 million, which will be paid for through sewer rate increases, City Utilities’ Mary Jane Slaton said Thursday.
Rate hikes, the first of which went into effect on Jan. 1, have already been approved by the Fort Wayne City Council through 2019, Slaton said.
As city officials and engineers from Black & Veatch, the engineering firm designing the project, did their best to explain, several residents wondered why a tunnel was ultimately chosen, rather than building a new sewer treatment plant, performing more sewer-separation projects or adding more storage ponds to collect excess water.
The panel responded that the tunnel was the most cost-effective, least intrusive method that also anticipates further city growth.
The tunnel does more than simply store wastewater – it will use gravity to convey the sewage to the treatment plant, City Utilities’ Kelly Bajic said.
Another resident wanted to know why the city decided on funding the project through rate increases, rather than special bonding or grants.
"Unfortunately, there are not federal or state grants that we can get to pay for this," Slaton said, noting that the city is continually looking for outside funding, but the primary source of funding will be ratepayers reimbursing a state revolving loan for the project.
Despite concerns regarding cost and disruption to residents’ lives, several residents appeared optimistic about the construction.
Fort Wayne resident Nancy Boylan, 83, said she remembers swimming in the city’s rivers as a child, something that doesn’t happen anymore.
She praised the city for tackling the problem.
"I’m all for cleaning (the rivers) up. It can be done, and it needs to be done," Boylan said.
"I’m very impressed that our mayor has been that aggressive about wanting to do something about it."
Fort Wayne resident Kirsten Smith, agreed. Smith said she’s optimistic about the construction and said she thought Thursday’s presentation was well thought out and impressive.
"The people that I spoke with knew exactly what they were talking about, I don’t think that they gave short shrift to anything and they answered the questions very well," Smith said. "I’m glad we’re doing it. … I knew it was coming, and I knew it was going to be expensive, but they’ve really done a great deal of research, and I’m pleased with it."
Construction on the tunnel is expected to begin in 2017, to be completed by the end of 2018.