Our Opinion: Despite blunders, filtration plant still needed
Any kid who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s or '80s will remember the ads for Hot Wheels, those cool, miniature die-cast cars that, in the commercials, would zoom all over the house with unbelievable speeds and feats of aerobatics.
At the end of each ad, the announcer would say, "Hot Wheels! — tracks sold separately."
That's so you didn't think you'd get the curving, looping tracks if you just bought the car.
We were reminded of that common sense explanation earlier this month when the city of Portland announced that the price tag for the proposed water filtration plant has increased from $500 million to as much as $850 million and possibly more.
Partly, because the estimates were for the filtration plant alone and not the pipes that would carry water to and from the plant.
Water filtration! — pipes sold separately.
What a goof. That's the kind of poor planning, or poor communication, that makes residents roll their eyes whenever any government agency puts an estimated price tag on any significant project. From the time elected officials approve a project, or voters OK the funds for it, the cost projections almost always go up. Any number of legitimate economic factors can cause that to happen.
But putting a price tag on a water facility and not thinking, "Oh, yeah, it might need a pipe or two..."
That's just nuts.
The Portland City Council did not make any decisions about the project when they discussed the plant earlier this month. The facility is still in the planning stage. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of the Portland Water Bureau, said she would consult with the other members of the council before submitting a resolution authorizing a contract for the next phase.
Who would pay for this price increase? We would, through water rates, we all pay. The exact rate increase has yet to be determined.
So while we roll our own eyes at this blunder, we're also forced to add this: We editorialized in favor of building the treatment plant. And we still think it's the right thing to do.
The water treatment facility being proposed is one of the city's answers to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule — known as the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, to stop using uncovered reservoirs and untreated drinking water, to reduce the risk of exposure to the parasite Cryptosporidium.
The city fought this ruling from the start — and lost. In 2006, Portland appealed the EPA rule in federal court. In 2009, the city sought EPA guidance on how to obtain a variance. The federal agency later moved regulatory oversight to the Oregon Health Authority.
Because Bull Run water has historically been so clean, the OHA granted the city a variance in 2012. But that was revoked after Cryptosporidium was repeatedly detected beginning in 2017.
So while the "pipes sold separately" scenario is painfully laughable, we still recognize that the plant is important for the future of the metro region. Earlier this month, Water Bureau officials estimated the cost of a plant that minimally complies with the EPA requirement at $670 million. A plant that meets other goals, such as better removing other contaminants and better surviving an earthquake, was estimated at $850 million.
It would be penny wise and pound foolish to build a water treatment facility that isn't earthquake resistant. So again: we find ourselves siding with the need for the treatment plant.
Mayor Ted Wheeler is reportedly unhappy about the "pipes sold separately" meshugaas. He's also worried about other big-price-tag projects that are heading our way, including the cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Wheeler, a former state treasurer, wants to safeguard the city's AAA bond rating. That's a better bond rating than the state of Oregon can boast, and the better the bond rating, the more taxpayers save on significant projects.
We're with Wheeler on this one. He's right to be worried.
Not all cost overruns are due to bureaucratic bumbling. Construction costs are going up everywhere because of higher material costs and increasing labor costs. We are in one of the longest periods of economic growth in the nation's history. That means lots of agencies are building lots of stuff. Beyond the strong economy, other price-tag headwinds include property acquisition, project delays, international tariffs and the availability of materials.
Price tags for major public projects do go up. That's understandable.
But glaring gaffes like a water plant with no pipes?
Those blunders can and should be eliminated before anyone takes any project
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