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City's Aging Infrastructure Is Getting Fixed Assure Officials

Springfield Water and Sewer Commission Ex. Dir. Joshua Schimmel

Although many pipes are more than a century old, the utility infrastructure in Springfield, Massachusetts is in good shape and is continually being upgraded, according to officials who spoke at a public forum. The roundtable was scheduled after a water main break last month caused a large sinkhole on Main Street and raised concerns about what is happening underground.

Representatives from the public utilities that supply water, natural gas, and electricity to Springfield say tens of millions of dollars are being spent annually to repair and upgrade the thousands of miles of pipes and conduits that run beneath the city’s streets and sidewalks.

" Following the water main break one of the things that came up was: ' Gee there doesn't seem to be a plan in the city of Springfield to replace aging infrastructure.'  And to put it as bluntly as I can; you can't be farther wrong in that thinking," said  Springfield Director of Public Works Chris Cignoli.

He said the utility companies coordinate projects with each other and often will coincide with scheduled street repaving and roadway improvements so as to minimize disruptions to the public.

The city council’s Maintenance and Development Committee hosted the two-hour long infrastructure forum Monday. In addition to the utility representatives, the meeting was attended by officials from MassDOT, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, a representative of a major downtown property owner, and officials with MGM Springfield, which is building a $950 million casino downtown.

The meeting was held in a conference room in an office building just a block from where the water main break occurred at Main and Bridge Streets.  The intersection was closed to traffic for a week following the break because repairs had to be made to the utility conduits carrying wires for electricity and communications.

Joshua Schimmel, executive director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, said the city’s drinking water system -- which has more than a thousand miles of pipes -- is safe and reliable. There were 11 water main breaks per 100 miles of pipe last year. This is half the national average of 22 water main breaks per 100 miles of pipe per year,  according to Schimmel.

" Nobody has a crystal ball, so I can't tell you where the next water main break will be. But, I can promise you there will be one because that is the nature of the business," said Schimmel.  " We do our due diligence; we plan appropriately, we invest properly, we keep rates affordable."

He said the commission spent $231 million to repair and upgrade the infrastructure in the last 10 years and is planning to spend almost $100 million on capital projects in the next three years.

" We look at  where we have consequence of failure. where we are exposed by not having redundant systems," explained Schimmel in an  interview.  " A lot of the bigger projects going on now are redundancy projects to make sure we can get the water  from the source down to Springfield."

Officials with Eversource and Columbia Gas said each utility is working to replace aging underground pipes and repair leaks.  500 natural gas leaks in Springfield were reported to state utility regulators last year, but most were determined to be non-emergencies, so the repairs can be deferred for up to a year.

Brand new pipes are being installed to deliver water and sewer service and power for the MGM casino complex, according to the city’s chief development officer, Kevin Kennedy.

" There is $7 million going into the project that people don't realize because it is below ground, but it is critically important to the project," said Kennedy.

Rather than being a deterrent to new businesses coming to Springfield, Kennedy says the city’s infrastructure is actually an attraction.

" One of the reasons we are attracting a number of companies here is because of the quality of are infrastructure. We have good power here and an abundance of fiber optics."

City Councilor Kateri Walsh, chairperson of the Maintenance and Development Committee, said the meeting put her mind to rest about concerns she had following last month’s disruptive water main break.

" There is so much publicity when there is a water main break and something goes wrong. But, we found out today all the things that are going right."

Walsh said she plans to schedule a follow-up meeting in the fall.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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