TAMPA — For seven decades, a pipe taller than your average fifth-grader has carried Tampa sewage from downtown to Harbour Island, snaking near upscale townhouses and behind multi-million dollar homes before burrowing under Sparkman Channel to the city’s sewage plant.
Workers laid that pipe in 1951 when Harbour Island was home to nothing but garbage and rats. Now that it’s nearing the end of its useful life, the question becomes: Where is a new pipe going to go?
City officials haven’t decided yet, but Harbour Island residents are worried their recreational trails, commutes and possibly even their back yards are about to be torn up.
And the city, they say, has not allayed their fears.
"We’d like to know things that are going to be disruptive before a tractor pulls up," said Mike Gratz, president of the Harbour Island Community Services Association. "We would just like a project of this size to be in the communications loop."
Gratz and South Neighborhood Association president Larry Premak said neighborhood groups have had to pay attorneys to pry information out of the city through public record requests. And officials, they say, have dragged their feet in filling them.
Tampa Wastewater Director Eric Weiss said the city plans several public meetings to answer residents’ questions, but no route has been picked. The city isn’t being secretive, he said, there just isn’t much to report.
Now that the City Council has awarded a $1.1 million contract to Kimmins Contracting, the first phase of the $25 million project will be to figure out the best way to convey about one-third of the city’s sewage from a pump station near the convention center to the Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Hookers Point.
New sections of the pipe, called a force main, have been built in recent years. But 8,900 feet — or nearly 1.7 miles — of the original pipe needs to be replaced, Weiss said.
"We don’t even know how we’re going to do this yet," he said. "We’re open to anything."
Not surprisingly, Harbour Island residents have an idea: keep the existing pipe that runs under the Harbour Island bridge and continue east along Knights Run Drive to North Beneficial Drive. Then lay the pipe underwater around the northeast tip of the island and along the western shore between the shoreline and breakwaters put in to protect island property from cruise ships, Premak said.
That route wouldn’t disrupt traffic or dig up residents’ recreational areas or backyards, they said.
Or the city could run the pipe along Channelside Drive as it does roadway work for the Water Street development, Gratz said.
Houses and townhomes now crowd the easement for the current route. Will property owners lose some of their back yards for a new line? And if the city decides to run the new route to the east along South Beneficial Drive, the main thoroughfare for most of the island’s residential neighborhoods, another roadblock emerges.
The city would have to negotiate rights with the Harbour Island Community Services Association, which owns the land, Gratz said.
Weiss said Kimmins will conduct a study to determine the best route, a process that will take between four and six months to complete. A website with more details on the project will go online in March, he said.
The city has nothing to hide, Weiss said. With a project this big, city officials want to make sure they get it right, he said.
"We’ve been open and transparent through this whole process," he said.
Kimmins officials didn’t return a phone call requesting comment.
Harbour Island residents, or at least their neighborhood representatives, say they want a chance to debate the city’s choices sooner rather than later.
"We don’t know what we don’t know," Premak said.
Said Gratz: "We don’t want to spread rumors. We want to get out the facts. But this has been very difficult."