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updated: 7/5/2011 7:12 AM

Batavia mulls downtown utility fix

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As Batavia officials make plans to start prettying up the downtown in 2012, they are considering what to do about a less-sexy aspect of the project: utilities.

As long as streets and sidewalks are going to be torn up for streetscape work like adding trees, widening sidewalks and making colored crosswalks, should the city also then replace water mains, storm and sanitary sewers and electrical lines?

And who should pay for the work -- all utility customers, or just the owners of properties in the downtown?

Now or later?

It's a little like a home-improvement project: Might as well replace the plumbing connections and faucet while you're replacing the sink.

"There is a question of are you being asked to make improvements before their life expectancy is over," said Public Works Superintendent Gary Holm, author of a June 17 report on the topic.

Take the water mains.

According to that report, most were installed before 1930, and some are more than 100 years old. But they don't necessarily have to be replaced because of age. Instead, the city is going by size needed for fire-suppression flow and the history of main breaks. The first-generation cast-iron pipes are thicker and stouter, and were hand-laid, with more care, than those installed post-World War II, Holm said.

Still, nothing lasts forever. And since the proposed streetscape improvements are projected to last a half-century or more, it may be prudent to replace mains now, avoiding digging up an area twice and having to replace trees and the rest.

Replacing all water mains downtown could cost $3 million.

City officials already know the sanitary sewer on North River Street, from State to Spring streets, needs to be replaced. It figures the rest of North River might just need some patching. But for the rest of the downtown, officials are less certain. And if a large residential development were to be built downtown, some sanitary sewers would have to be enlarged, according to the report.

There are no large developments being considered now, but city officials previously have talked about redeveloping the former Shumway foundry site on Shumway Avenue.

Storm sewers are an unknown. One of the deepest, a brick trunk sewer, is under North River, which may be one of the first areas where the streetscape work is done. The trunk sewer is 15 to 20 feet underground, has had repairs and still works. And when the city separates combined sanitary and storm sewer pipes on the near west side of town, it likely will have to install more storm trunks downtown, according to the report.

Then there is the electrical system. In general, the downtown components are expected to last another 20 years. But there has been talk of burying overhead lines on Water Street and relocating underground lines near Shumway if a second bridge over the Fox River is ever built.

The cost

A preliminary estimate of what it could cost to do all this in downtown Batavia runs as high as $9 million.

After hearing Holm's report, the city council's public utilities committee wants more information before officials even think about who would pay for it, whether that be all utility customers or just owners of downtown properties.

The utility funds pay for repairs and replacements of other mains, sewers and electrical lines throughout the city, when needed. And eventually most of this work would have to be done, streetscape project or not, Holm said.

Holm's staff is obtaining prices for sending a television camera into the storm and sanitary sewers to inspect their condition.

And he is investigating whether there is a way to do something similar for water mains, such as using sonar to detect variations in pipe wall thickness, and if there are defects likely to lead to main breaks.