Report on Lift Station 87 project, from the beginning, requested by City Commission for both board and public transparency and reference

City attorney’s office to include chronology of events

This is an aerial view of Lift Station 87 in Luke Wood Park as of late August. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission authorized City Attorney Robert Fournier and his staff to craft a document that will lay out the chronology of events in the process to construct Lift Station 87.

When completed, the new facility — under construction in Luke Wood Park near downtown Sarasota — will handle about one-third of the city’s sewage, including the flow from the Sarasota Memorial Hospital complex, City Manager Tom Barwin has noted.

At Barwin’s suggestion during the commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 8, the chronology in Fournier’s document will go back at least to 2004, when a major raw sewage spill from Lift Station 7 into Hudson Bayou led to the City Commission’s entering into a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP); that launched the effort to build the new lift station.

Commissioner Hagen Brody, who long has voiced frustrations with the rising expense of the Lift Station 87 project, made the motion on Sept 8. At Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie’s request, the report Fournier and his staff will produce will include details about “the budget, the overages, the fiscal impact, the litigation costs” and the changes in the scope of work over the years.

On Feb. 25, 2013, the city filed a complaint against AECOM USA, which — in September 2009 — assumed the contract into which the city entered with Boyle Engineering Services in 2008 to handle the design, permitting and pre-construction services for Lift Station 87. That litigation is still underway.

Initially, Brody said on Sept. 8, he wanted an independent review of all the actions leading to the current stage of the project. However, after talking with Fournier, Brody continued, he felt the city attorney’s office could handle the creation of the reference material “and do it effectively.”

In June 2019, a crew works on the ‘wetwell’ structure for Lift Station 87 in Luke Wood Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Brody told his colleagues he wants to know, “start to finish, what happened, what went wrong, why the overages were so expensive on this project. … I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what did happen.”

“There is some trust lost in the community on our ability to stay within budget [with such major initiatives],” Brody pointed out. The report, he continued, would be “a small step” toward rebuilding that trust and educating the public about any correlation between the lift station expenses and city customers’ utility rates.

“There’s no place where people can go to inform themselves,” he said, “and I think that’s a problem. … We need a document out there that we can point to …

Another goal in seeking the report, Brody indicated, is to lay out all the facts as reference for future commissions, to help prevent a similar situation from occurring.

“Having been here the whole time this is going on,” Fournier told the commissioners, he could not point to “one single cause” for the increase in the expense of the lift station from the original estimate of $12.5 million to $53.8 million at this point. “There’s a whole series of events and decisions …”

City Attorney Robert Fournier addresses the commissioners on Aug. 19 via WebEx remote meeting technology. News Leader image

Fournier did caution that he does not have a large staff; therefore, the creation of the document would be time-consuming. Still, he acknowledged that he and his staff could handle the work.

Utilities Director Bill Riebe already has undertaken research into the history of the project, Fournier said. That information would be helpful, Fournier added.

“I’m supportive of this,” Commissioner Liz Alpert said as the discussion ensued. “I think there is a lot of misinformation in the community,” and the current board, she added, “gets the blame for this happening … Maybe nobody is to blame, really.”

So much happened before any of the current commissioners were elected, Alpert pointed out.

After Fournier and his staff complete the document, Alpert said, if the board members decide they want further details, they can pay Fournier’s office for the extra work or commission an independent undertaking.

Commissioner Willie Shaw also voiced support for Fournier’s office to handle the initial effort.

Design, redesign, litigation and construction

In late summer of 2013, the city hired a new engineering firm, McKim & Creed, to take over the Lift Station 87 project. That company’s employees discovered that the first microtunneling plan for the initiative could have drilled right into the bridge over Hudson Bayou. As a result, the project had to be redesigned, so the pipeline could be installed at a much lower depth.

(The microtunneling finally was completed successfully on Feb. 7, 2017, then-Utilities Department Director Mitt Tidwell told the City Commission in March 2017.)

This is the cutting head used in the microtunneling phase under Hudson Bayou. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In the aftermath of the microtunneling issues, discussion shifted to whether the wastewater facility itself should be constructed underground or aboveground.

Given concerns about hurricanes, the City Commission in early May 2014 “figuratively threw in its cards … and asked for a new deal,” as the News Leader’s then-City Editor Stan Zimmerman reported.

Already by that point, Zimmerman noted, the project had outlived two city managers’ and two utilities directors’ tenures.

The commission sitting at that time elected to go with an underground design that would enable the facility to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.

The city’s Lift Station 87 webpages explain that, in July 2015, the City Commission approved the final design and construction of the current version of the project.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for the financial details to-date, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone provided information in a Sept. 9 email.

Project materials for the original Lift Station 87 project were visible in Luke Wood Park in April 2014, before the current design of the lift station was approved. File photo

The estimate for the design and construction of the original project was $12.5 million, Bartolone wrote. The design work began in 2008, and construction started in 2011.

“As a reminder,” Bartolone continued, “there are several differences from the original project and the current one, including:

  • “Installing all electrical and emergency generator facilities above projected Category 3 storm surge levels as opposed to the original project, whereby electrical and emergency generator gear was installed 15 ft. below sea level (underground), leaving this vital equipment extremely vulnerable to catastrophic damage due to storm surge and future sea level rise
  • “Housing all equipment in an above-grade, hardened, concrete and attractive building protecting it from both wind and surge damage.
  • “Using double the required storage capacity and pump redundancy (as opposed to the old project) — which provides additional time to respond to potential outages and additional pumps in the event a pump fails
  • “Installing the new gravity sewer main under the Hudson Bayou in a steel casing so it is protected from damage as opposed to the original design (which was not buildable) and subject to damage.”

The estimate for the current project, Bartolone added, was $32 million, not including engineering. Construction started in 2016.

To-date, Bartolone continued, the city has spent $53.8 million on Lift Station 87.

Including the installation of new water pipelines in association with the lift station work, he wrote, the total projected expense is $68.5 million. The city expects to spend $66.5 million just on the lift station initiative, he added.

A graphic shows traffic detours in effect as work continues on the project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Lift Station 87 webpages explain that aging water mains will be replaced “to improve water pressure,” and new sewer mains will be installed. Further, reclaimed water mains will be installed “to provide the area with an environmentally friendly source of irrigation water,” the webpages point out.

The total amount spent on the current project thus far is $34.1 million, Bartolone wrote in his email. The final expense for the current project has been put at $48.8 million, he noted. Just the lift station portion of the current project is expected to total $46.8 million, he added.

The final phase of the overall project began in August. The webpages say the initiative “is less than a year from completion.”

The two-story building in Luke Wood Park is more than 90% complete, based on information on the webpages.

Osprey Avenue from just north of Hudson Bayou to Alta Vista Street is closed to traffic through March 2021, so crews can replace water and sewer pipelines and install new manholes and valves at the intersection of Osprey and Lincoln Drive, the webpages say.

After Lift Station 87 has been completed, Lift Station 7 will be decommissioned. That work is anticipated by the end of March 2021, the webpages note. Park-like landscaping will be installed on the Lift Station 7 site.