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New West council concerned about sewer project’s impacts on downtown businesses

“They can’t be abusing the merchants in the downtown that are already struggling”

Sewer construction on Columbia Street is placing an “unfair burden” on some downtown businesses, say some city councillors.

The New Westminster interceptor transports sewage from Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, most of Burnaby and parts of New Westminster to the treatment plant in Delta. Phase 1 of the upgrading project was expected to be completed in 2021, with any work that couldn’t be completed by the fall of 2021 being finished at a later date, but the project is still ongoing.

“It doesn’t appear to be much visual progress on the project,” said Coun. Patrick Johnstone. “The pile of pipes does not seem to be getting much smaller.”

On Monday, council approved an exemption to the city’s construction noise bylaw so the contractor can conduct maintenance of the existing sewer, install new utility holes and do sliplining (installing pipes into existing pipes) related to the project along Columbia Street. The overnight work will be done over eight nights from Feb. 15 to March 10.

Johnstone said he’d like updates on three aspects of the project: when does Metro Vancouver expect to finish the work and be off the road; what is being done to accelerate that work or ensure the work isn’t further delayed; and is any mitigation being considered for downtown businesses and residents in light of the project delays.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy questioned the necessity for Metro Vancouver to use Columbia Street for the storage of giant pipes.

“It’s really unfair,” he said. “It has had an impact on local businesses, some businesses in particular. We all know businesses are struggling. It is going to be patio season soon and people are going to have their outdoor seating hidden by pipes. I think that is an unfair burden.”

McEvoy said it’s not fair for some businesses to have concrete pipes situated in front of their businesses for months on end.

“If they don’t have somewhere else to put them, can we give them parking tickets? What can we do here?” he said.

McEvoy also expressed concern that the storage of pipes on the street creates a “tunnel effect” for people walking on parts of Columbia Street, at a time when the city is trying to prevent crime by allowing people to observe their surroundings.

“You can’t observe that area at all,” he said. “It’s not attractive for walk-through traffic for the local businesses.”

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr questioned the necessity of storing, what appears to be the pipes for the entire project, on Columbia Street, rather than bringing them in as they’re needed.

“We don’t want to delay this project. We want it to get completed sooner rather than later, so we have been a little reluctant to use that heavy hand,” he said. “But we need to be sending a message that they can’t be abusing the merchants in the downtown that are already struggling. They continue to, it seems to me, push the envelope, and I am not happy with that.”

Lisa Leblanc, the city’s director of engineering, said staff received a short update about the project on Monday, but she suggested the city invite Metro Vancouver staff to attend a council meeting in March to provide more details about the project.

Leblanc said sliplining, which is the main part of the work that needs to be done with the project, is dependent on a couple of things – dry weather and preparatory work that must be done in order to prepare the existing pipe to receive the sliplining treatment.

“They have encountered a number of problems with the work, including the weather because that work needs to be done during lower flows in the pipe as well,” she said. “But also, they have run into obstructions, which is not uncommon in our downtown. There is a variety of things underground that aren’t necessarily recorded on drawings. So that has certainly slowed them down.”

In addition, Leblanc said November’s wet weather resulted in some supply chain issues related to the delivery of pipes. She said the sliplining will occur very soon (as early as this week) and the subsequent work on the manholes will take another couple of months.

“So, we are likely looking at May before the project is clear of the downtown area,” she said.

Eugene Wat, the city’s manager of infrastructure planning, most of the project’s pipes have been set up on Columbia Street, near Begbie.

“That’s where the launch shaft is located and that’s where all the segments of the pipe will be sliplined. So for the entire section of the downtown that is the location where all the pipes will be inserted,” he said. “That’s why it has been stockpiled there.”

Wat said the pipes have been sitting at that location for a long period of time because of the delays experienced by Metro Vancouver.

“My understanding is that they plan to slipline as early as this week,” he told council Monday night. “They hope to have enough good weather that they are able to get most of the sliplining in. I don’t have the exact duration of time but it is probably two or three weeks or something like that to do the sliplining.”

Much-needed project

In December 2020, Metro Vancouver officials appeared before city to outline plans to rehabilitate about 1.6 kilometres of a major sewer line on Columbia Street between McBride Boulevard and Front/Columbia streets. At that time, council members expressed concern the project could be a “deathblow” to Columbia Street businesses already reeling from the impacts of COVID-19 and directed staff to work with Metro Vancouver on a different timeline for the project.

In March 2021, council decided to support work on Phase 1 of the project after Metro Vancouver reemphasized the need to do the “urgent” repairs to the sewer main. They noted that a discharge of raw sewage and the development of a sink hole on Columbia Street were two potential consequences of delaying repairs to the major sewer line.

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the project is having a lot of disruption in the downtown, but the city recognized from the onset that this was not a straightforward or a simple infrastructure project.

“We have gone through projects like this ourselves; we know the challenges these projects often face when we do get under the ground,” he said. “But I do think it is important that we have an opportunity to get a really fulsome community update and get some of our concerns aired with Metro Vancouver so they can do everything they can to mitigate and see this project be completed as soon as possible, which, I think, is the goal we are all trying to strive here.”