Plans for a sanitary sewer and trail project between Keystone State Park and New Alexandria Borough briefly ended during Wednesday’s Derry Township Municipal Authority (DTMA) board meeting, as the board voted to stop the project, only to reconsider and continue the long-discussed project following an executive session.
The board voted 5-0 to continue the project, which has been in the works for more then seven years, and allow consulting engineer Ed Schmitt of Gibson-Thomas Engineering Co. Inc. weigh options related to a project timeline and the bidding process.
Earlier in the remote meeting, the board had voted 3-2 to halt the project, with Joe Dixon putting the motion on the floor and Gib Stemmler seconding the motion. Dixon, Stemmler and board chairman R. Daniel Duralia voted to halt the project, and Ellen Keefe and Patrick Dicesere voted to continue to project.
Board members opposed to the project cited issues with debt service costs and the high bid amounts for bridge-related costs, while those in favor of the project suggested that the combined sewer/trail project could bring growth to the area.
According to information provided by Gibson-Thomas Engineering Co. Inc. last year, the project carries an estimated cost of just over $4.6 million.
The trail component of the project is fully funded and has a price tag of $2,009,200, with funding provided through three separate state grants. The sanitary sewer portion of the project has a cost of $2,602,060, with $600,000 in funding being provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and another $474,000 in matching state Community Conservation Partnerships Program funds.
Under a proposed agreement with the authority, the DCNR would provide three separate payments of $200,000 during a nine-month span that coincides with the building of sewers and teardown of the park’s existing sewage treatment plant, authority solicitor William McCabe said previously.
Duralia said previously that DTMA plans to hold off on signing the agreement until it knows the project’s bid amounts. Bid pricing will also provide the authority a clearer picture of the debt service ratepayers will incur, which the board hopes will be at or below $60 per month. Stemmler said Wednesday that the debt service amount doesn’t include costs for minimum water usage, which he noted could add approximately $17 per month per ratepayer.
To help with debt service-related costs, the board has previously discussed equalizing rates or adding a small fee to each of their 4,000-plus customers’ bills.
Authority manager Carol Henderson said Wednesday that the sanitary sewage project presently includes 31 customers along with 25 tap-ins at Keystone State Park.
While the board eventually voted to continue the project, several members expressed their concerns earlier in the meeting.
“As it’s progressed, the money to do this project has continued to rise and the limited number of customers we’re picking up, to me, does not justify spending this kind of money for a sewer extension,” Dixon said of his reasons for motioning to stop the project. “I just don’t feel we’re making any headway with this.”
Added Stemmler: “The Keystone debt service is $60, but it’s still not the bill that (customers) will be paying. This project, for the next 20 years, is going to be $20 more than our next highest rate, and we’d still be in debt unless we put the rate on everybody.”
Board chairman R. Daniel Duralia simply said it was “time to move on.”
“We need this project — Derry Township is a dying community and we need something that is going to promote growth and bring people into the community,” board member Ellen Keefe said. “It’s going to be a short-term hiccup in financing but I think long-term, it’s going to pay for itself.”
“It’s too early. We need to look at some other options, and we need to somehow make this project work,” board member Patrick Dicesere said.
Bids for the project were opened Monday and Schmitt said more than 10 companies bid on the project; he described the bids as “very competitive.”
The sticking point, he noted, was the overall budget for large bridges tied to the project. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, through the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), previously noted that several planned bridges crossing the Loyalhanna Creek would potentially need to be heightened to improve water rescue access as part of the project.
In recent conversations with Adam Mattis of the DCNR, Schmitt said various entities tied to the project — the Pittsburgh office of the Army Corps of Engineers, the DEP and the Fish and Boat Commission — “took our big bridges and kind of blew us out of the water with the size, length and height. And on the little bridges, (they) added two bridges from our original estimate and design.”
“We can’t eliminate the bridges and just do the sewers because it’s such a big part of the project,” Schmitt added. “Between the two bridges, you’re talking almost $1.7 million.”
Schmitt suggested initially doing the trail, sewer and small bridges to begin the project, and hold off on the larger bridges in hopes of receiving more details from state entities. Providing more time on the larger bridges could also offer more time to seek additional funding, he noted.
“Our thought is we can get the trail to (Route) 981 down to the Loyalhanna, and then deal with the two large bridges they’re making us put in,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said he wants to hear more form the DCNR before accepting any bids. If the authority receives favorable bridge bids, the process could proceed quickly, since details related to bridge size, permitting and other factors are already in place.
“It’s not like you’re starting from scratch in that situation,” he said. “It wouldn’t be hard to put them on the street for bid if we got money to pay for them.”
While Henderson serves as authority manager and does not vote at board meetings, she pushed the authority “to find the money for the bridges.” A regular visitor of the Ghost Town Trail, a rail trail which stretches from Indiana County to Cambria County, she believes the Keystone trail has similar potential as a family-friendly community asset.
Regarding the sewer portion of the project, Henderson said “once this is in, you’re definitely going to start adding customers.” Some board members, however, noted that only a small number of customers were added in the years following the completion of a separate New Alexandria sanitary sewer system project nearly a decade ago.
Sarah Crispin-Thomas, president of the Derry Area Revitalization Corporation (DARCee), stressed the importance of pushing the Keystone project forward.
“We have a shrinking population and more of the residents of the township and borough will take on the tax burden because we have people moving out, not in,” she said, adding that local entities could potentially assist with funding the project. Henderson said Derry Township previously made a $100,000 commitment toward the project.
If the project falls through, Schmitt said the authority is responsible for more than $550,000 in engineering and related costs.
To help cover the sanitary sewer portion of the project, DTMA previously approved a 20-year, $1.77-million Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PennVEST) loan for the project. The state loan is designated for the construction of a new sewage collection system to serve residents in the Oasis and Lower Flowers Road areas and connect the state park, located in Derry Township, to the New Alexandria treatment plant. The project will also tackle health-related issues with malfunctioning on-lot systems in the area.
The existing Keystone Park sewer system is about 60 years old and has outlived its useful life, according to project engineers.
The Keystone trail has been touted as a “pivot point” in a still-developing north-central Pennsylvania trail network, as the 3.88-mile trek between Keystone State Park and New Alexandria will connect with the Legion-Keener Park trail in Latrobe, the partially constructed Little Crabtree Creek Trail that will connect with Twin Lakes Park, and the proposed Loyalhanna Lake Trail that will connect with the Bush Recreation Area in Loyalhanna.
The Keystone Park portion of the trail — called the Loyalhanna Trail — will follow gravity sewage lines proposed to be part of the sanitary sewage portion of the project.