Sewer contractor wants less lining, more digging
The president of a sewer construction company near Milwaukee wants the city to spend more federal stimulus money on sewer construction.
Dennis Biondich, president of American Sewer Services Inc., Rubicon, acknowledges the obvious beneficiary of such a request but argues there is more at stake than just his bottom line. Milwaukee, he said, spent too much of its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money lining old sewers rather than building new ones.
“This is a self-serving argument because I can’t do lining work,” Biondich said. “But also, if you look at the bigger picture, it isn’t helping the economy much.”
Milwaukee in 2009 spent $20 million, most of which was not stimulus money, on sewer relay projects that apply to companies such as American Sewer, said Martin Aquino, engineer-in-charge at the Milwaukee Department of Public Works. The city spent $18 million, 90 percent of which was stimulus money, on sewer lining projects, he said.
Almost all of the stimulus grant money for water and sewer work went to the lining projects because they take less time to engineer, Aquino said.
Lining projects also do not require builders cut into streets to access and replace pipes or build new ones. That means, Biondich said, lining projects create fewer jobs and limit competition for stimulus money to the handful of companies that do the work.
Open-trench jobs, on the other hand, give work to crews of up to seven builders working the equipment and laying the pipe, he said. There also is work for three or four truckers hauling fill from the site and another two trucks bringing in materials, not to mention the local suppliers, Biondich said.
Creating jobs is a priority for stimulus money, said Milwaukee Alderman Joe Davis, but so is fixing the city’s pipes. Milwaukee has a big problem with flooded basements when it rains because water runs through cracked pipes and backs up sewers, he said.
The lining projects target that problem while also creating jobs, Davis said.
“We can’t do it all,” he said. “Clearly, there are needs for road infrastructure improvement. But, in this case, we want to make sure that we are protecting the taxpayers.”
Biondich disagreed. He said the primary reason the city did the lining projects was they were quicker to engineer and hit the stimulus deadlines.
“It was easier on the timeline,” Biondich said. “But the crazy thing is during that same timeline, they had some open-cut work that they could have pushed into stimulus.”
City engineers decide between sewer lining and sewer replacement based on the specifics of each project, said Jeff Mantes, Milwaukee commissioner of public works. If a pipe is structurally unsound, it will be replaced, he said. If the pipe has cracks but is still in decent shape, lining is more appropriate, Mantes said.
“From the city’s standpoint, we’re going to pick the method that is best for our taxpayers,” he said, “and for our budget.”
Mantes said he often hears complaints from builders who say spending is skewed away from their line of work. The same thing happens between asphalt and concrete pavers, depending on how many roads are repaved and how they are repaved, he said.
“They like to knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” Mantes said.
The problem, Biondich said, is no one is knocking on his door to offer stimulus work.
“We here in this area have not seen dollar one go to our industry,” he said, “the open-cut industry.”