Sewer fee hike unavoidable after decades of neglect
I WOULD LOVE to be able to tell Honolulu residents that our sewer system is in great shape, and that no more money is needed to maintain it. That would be a lie.
I have promised you from the start that I will be transparent about the state of the city, that I will be accountable for your money and that my main goal is to leave our home, Honolulu, better than I found it in 2005. Nowhere is that more true than with respect to our sewer infrastructure.
It's not easy to increase fees for any government service. I knew coming into office in 2005 that our city's infrastructure was in bad shape. I didn't know just how bad. That is why we're preparing to raise your sewer fees again. Our vow remains the same: We will spend sewer fees exclusively on sewer work, and we will not break that pledge. If we do not prioritize sewer work now, our children will suffer a far greater burden in the future.
This need for prioritization has been clear from the start of my tenure. On the morning of Feb. 2, 2005, exactly one month after I took office, a sewer line beneath Kalanianaole Highway in Niu ruptured, spilling 2,000 gallons of untreated wastewater onto the street and into nearby storm drains.
City crews diverted traffic, dug a pit to unearth the pipe and repaired it. Before February was over, they had to go back twice more to fix ruptures in different spots of that underground iron pipe. Now we're working on a replacement, which will be completed later this year, at a cost of $15 million.
The Niu force main had been installed in 1959 to carry East Honolulu's sewage into town and to the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. It is relatively young by city standards. We have an aging sewer system, with about 20 percent of our 1,478 miles of municipal wastewater mains being 50 years or older; 27 miles were constructed at the turn of the last century.
WORK now under way on Kapiolani Boulevard will replace a sewer main that was installed 84 years ago, in 1923. We are finishing up work on the Kalaheo sewer in Kailua that was built in 1964. The Kaiolu Street force main in Waikiki is the same age; it was 42 years old when it failed last March, forcing us to divert 48 million gallons of sewage into the Ala Wai Canal. (An emergency bypass was quickly put in place and we're working rapidly to install permanent backups for the force main.) Age is not determinative of when a main will break, but we do know that mains do not last forever, and we need to address at least critical mains in the next decade to prevent another Beachwalk from happening.
Based on our discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health and our commitment to leave Honolulu better than we found it, we are embarking on a program to address critical sewer force mains, including the one on Kaiolu Street.
For the 2008 fiscal year, we're proposing to spend $351 million on sewer projects. That will bring our three-year total to $945 million, almost equal to the amount the city spent on wastewater projects for the previous 10 years.
IF there were any way to avoid the fee increases for the critical work that needs to be done, I certainly would and will pursue it. However, the EPA has told us that the city's sewer system has suffered "decades of neglect," and it would be unconscionable not to do something about that now.
For us to succeed on a timely basis, we appeal to the public and the City Council for their cooperation and support. Council Budget Chairman Todd Apo is right in wanting to scrutinize details of our proposal. However, he appreciates the predicament we're in: Delaying these long-overdue repairs today only adds to the cost tomorrow.
East Honolulu and Waikiki Councilman Charles Djou, on the other hand, insists on bemoaning higher fees but never offers any credible solutions. He makes you wonder if he would prefer that we continue the decades of neglect and keep our fingers crossed that the area he represents doesn't wind up knee-deep in sewage.
To put it another, less delicate way: The price of a soft drink and a plate lunch has increased over the years. So has the cost of getting rid of the stuff after your body's done with it. If there's no such thing as a free lunch, you can be sure that the aftermath isn't free either.
As I have said time and again, I don't want the people of Oahu or any future mayor and City Council to ever have to face what we went through in Waikiki last March. The sooner we get on with prioritizing this important aspect of a need-to-have, basic city service, the better off our city will be for generations to come.
Mufi Hannemann is mayor of Honolulu.