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 multimillion-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 producing 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 N 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 back yards, they said.
But Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that idea is likely too expensive and would run into regulatory roadblocks with the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard and the Tampa Port Authority.
Harbour Island residents said it should at least be studied.
"It’s hard to believe the city is open to anything when the alternate water route hasn’t even been studied or costed out. Where’s the open mind?" Premak said.
Weiss said the water route will be part of the study.
Houses and townhomes now crowd the easement for the current route. Will property owners lose some of their back yards for a new line?
If the city decides to replace the pipe in its current path, then an aboveground temporary pipe would be employed along the route while workers seal off the inside of the pipe, Weiss said. That method wouldn’t require much construction or impinge on private property, he said.
If the city decides to run the new route to the east along S 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."
Buckhorn said the city wants to find the least disruptive and most efficient way to replace the force main, but can’t afford to dawdle.
"God forbid there is a break in that sewer main that’s carrying probably 30 to 40 percent of the sewage in the city of Tampa. That would be catastrophic," Buckhorn said.
The island’s residents just want to do what’s best and be included in the discussion.
"This is not a case of ‘Not-in-my-back yard’?," Premak said. "It’s more of a case of what’s the best way to accomplish this."