Akron seeks to lower sewer project costsFriday August 16, 2019

Between the faint sunlight of a drop shaft and a darkness his flashlight could not pierce, Mayor Dan Horrigan crouched with a construction marker in hand and autographed the inside of the $184 million Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel.

In the next few weeks, the massive tunnel will become largely inaccessible as workers install a series of concrete baffles to slow the fall of rain and sewage into the 180-foot drop shaft. At the bottom, gravity will pull the watery mix north on its way to the Water Reclamation Facility.

This time next year, if all goes as planned and the tunnel becomes fully operational in January, the view from the Exchange Street Bridge over the Ohio & Erie Canal will be of grass growing — not two garage-sized concrete tanks, heavy machinery and a 45-foot-wide circular drop shaft.

The tunnel, already seven months behind schedule because of delays in building and operating Rosie the tunnel-boring machine, will become a particularly expensive memory in the city’s $1.2 billion sewer project. The plan’s 26 projects are mostly complete. The work is funded by increased sewer rates and long-term state loans.

“The goal has always been to drive the cost down,” Horrigan said. Though there was no rain on a recent morning, concrete-colored water trickled under his feet, heading north along the tunnel’s gentle slope, into the darkness, toward the echoing rumbles of construction crews a mile away. “It’s the most expensive project in our history. And we don’t want it to be any more expensive.”

This is a critical week, financially, for Akron. Horrigan’s cabinet called expert witnesses to the stand Wednesday before Judge John R. Adams at the federal courthouse downtown. The city is arguing for changes that would reduce the overall cost of the sewer project while maintaining the environmental benefits of a 2014 consent decree calling for a system that keeps all sewage out of local streams and rivers.

Horrigan wants to use green infrastructure northwest of downtown to absorb rainfall while increasing flow to the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel, which can hold 26 million gallons. By doing so, his engineers say two catch basins in the Merriman Valley and another on Kelly Avenue would not need to be built, potentially saving ratepayers $35.5 million. Another $39 million in savings could be realized if the court accepts the city’s new BioCept water treatment process.

The city hopes to hear soon from Adams, who can approve changes to the original plan or order the city to stay the course.

In the meantime, Horrigan is preparing a third amendment to add the removal of the Gorge Dam to the sewer project as a way to negotiate more cost savings.

The Ohio EPA estimates the overall dam removal project at $70 million. It’s the last dam from Kent to Cuyahoga Falls impeding the flow of the Cuyahoga River, which engineers say would clean itself and improve water quality on Lake Erie if water is allowed to move more freely.

Demolishing the 60-foot dam isn’t the biggest hurdle. What’s posing environmental and logistical concerns is how to properly dispose of 832,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in the 34-acre reservoir at the top of the dam. A 2015 Ohio EPA feasibility study determined that the sediment removal would account for $57 million of the overall $70 million project.

Horrigan is willing to take the sediment, which would be sucked up by a barge and piped about a mile and a half downstream to city property near the Signal Tree, a historical way-finding marker used by Native Americans. The sediment would be stuffed into large socks, allowing the water to drain off and be treated. Then the sediment would be buried above underground pipes, perpetually diverting future runoff to the nearby water treatment facility.

City staff would apply to state and federal officials, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, to help pay for Akron’s part in removing the dam.

By solving the state’s sediment problem and cleaning up the river, which is the ultimate goal of the consent decree, the city would ask the state and federal EPA to take a $300 million Northside Interceptor Tunnel off the list of remaining sewer projects.

“No offense,” Horrigan said, standing in the tunnel beneath downtown Akron with construction bosses who oversaw the project, “but I don’t want to build another tunnel. I think one is enough.”

The proposed northside tunnel would collect sewage and rain from Chapel Hill and North Hill. Instead, Horrigan’s team is going to ask that existing pipes be widened and/or reconfigured to separate rain and sewage, which would cost less than buying another tunnel boring machine and drilling another massive hole.

Reach Doug Livingston at or 330-996-3792.