Along the Coast: Boca Raton’s multiyear project targets older underground pipes

By Mary Hladky

Determined to avoid mistakes Fort Lauderdale has made, Boca Raton is launching a multiyear effort to repair or replace its underground water and sewer pipes.
The work will start in September in the Chatham Hills and Country Club Village neighborhoods, respectively located between Federal and Dixie highways north of Northeast 28th Street, and east of Interstate 95 and north of Palmetto Park Road.
Over the next five years, work will be done in four additional areas, all but one located east of I-95 in older parts of the city where pipes can be up to 80 years old.
Money has been set aside to pay for the estimated $60 million cost.
Boca Raton also plans a 20-year program to upgrade pipes in the rest of the city’s older neighborhoods as well as larger pipes that often run along the major roads.
All told, the repairs and replacements will cost an estimated $600 million to $750 million over 20 years, although that number could change as the city gets more data on the condition of its pipes.
The problems plaguing Fort Lauderdale illustrate why Boca Raton is investing in infrastructure upgrades.
Over at least the past five years, deteriorating water and sewer lines that were not properly maintained have ruptured frequently, dumping more than 20 million gallons of sewage into yards and waterways.
The city’s neglect of maintenance was cast in bold relief on July 17, when a Florida Power & Light subcontractor drilled into a water main. The mistake could have been quickly corrected by diverting water into another pipe, but underground valves that hadn’t been tested in years failed, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
A crisis was averted when city workers patched the broken pipe, but even so about 220,000 customers were told to boil water before use. The boil-water order was lifted for most customers on July 21, the same day a pipe burst along a major city artery that was closed until the break was repaired.
Boca Raton has avoided such problems and wants to keep it that way. Utility Services Director Chris Helfrich said pipe breaks are rare, averaging about one a month.
“We haven’t seen what Fort Lauderdale is seeing,” Helfrich said. “We don’t want to get ourselves in that situation.
“We are way ahead of the curve,” he added. “We think we have a good program in place. It will evolve as technology evolves.”
Current technology cannot predict when a pipe will fail, but Helfrich expects that will change and help the city decide the order in which pipe upgrades are made.
A city study about two years ago looked at the age of its underground pipes, where they had failed and their locations relative to critical buildings such as hospitals and police and fire facilities. “These are areas we want to go into first,” Helfrich said.
The ISIP project, or Innovative Sustainable Infrastructure Program, will be coordinated with planned improvements to streets and sidewalks so that all the work is done at one time.
City officials have not decided how to finance upgrades beyond the six neighborhood projects. Options include issuing bonds, which would not affect water and sewer bills since customers already pay for debt service; using utility reserves, raising rates or all three, Helfrich said. The property tax rate would not be affected.
After Chatham Hills and Country Club Village, the neighborhood projects on the five-year list include:
• Tunison Palms, Old Floresta and Lake Floresta Park, north of West Palmetto Park Road between Northwest Seventh and 11th avenues.
• Boca Raton Square, east of I-95, south of West Palmetto Park Road and north of Southwest 14th Street.
• Boca Villas, between Federal Highway and Northeast Fifth Avenue and north of Palmetto Park Road in the downtown.
• Boca Woods, between West Palmetto Park Road and Glades Road just west of U.S. 441, and Winfield Park between North Dixie Highway and Federal Highway north of Northeast 20th Street.

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