By Richard Sullins |

A century and a half after being founded, the town of Broadway has come to what could be the most important decision in its 151-year history – should it stay the small town it’s always has been, or should it grow into a larger place in which to live and work while trying to hold on to its small-town charm?

That was the question facing the town’s leaders as they met on February 28 and listened to several possible courses of action that could be taken to address the current limitations of Broadway’s water treatment and delivery systems that are preventing further growth within the town’s corporate limits.

Broadway has known for years its aging water system needs more than Band Aids alone can continue to fix. Water and sewer pipes are continuously springing leaks somewhere in the system and with a limited maintenance staff, new Town Manager John Godfrey told the town board he has personally had to respond to several leaks since his first day on the job on January 2.

The problem was visualized when Mayor Donald Andrews held up a piece of PVC pipe of the same type that might be put into the ground today for use as a water line and compared it to a section of a plastic water pipe buried in 1970 that had recently failed and been dug up for replacement. The older pipe was thinner and of a different type than used today. Its walls showed the beginning of cracks and pinholes from the constant force of water running continually through it every day for 52 years. It had outlived its life expectancy.

Those pipes run through miles and miles of Broadway’s water system and are but one part of the growing number of systemic failures in recent years. The town’s leaders know the time has come for a decision about what must be done, but replacing deteriorating water pipes is just a small part of the issue they are facing. The real problems are much bigger.

Sewer system needs major decision

The creation of water and sewer solutions in the 21st century is one of the most critical decisions facing communities like Broadway. Facing infrastructures that are beginning to crumble, construction costs that continue to escalate, and supply chain issues that have left projects at a standstill for months at a time, cities and towns are faced with difficult choices as they weigh cost benefits with resources that are likely to be available to them, either in the form of cash reserves or through grant funding.

As the regulations implementing the $1.3 trillion American Rescue Plan Act were being written last year, there was hope among local governments those dollars could possibly be used to replace aging water and sewer systems, but the final rules released in January deflated those hopes like a bullet through a balloon. Infrastructure costs for water and sewer were not allowed.

So, municipalities are turning to consultants who specialize in civil engineering projects to not only assist with their design, but also to assist in the search for grant funding to help pay for them. Broadway’s leaders hired a team of consultants from the firm of WithersRavenel of Cary to determine the most cost effective and sustainable systems for water distribution and for treating and operating a sanitary sewer system for the town of almost 1,400 people.

WithersRavenel reported to the town on February 28 there are four options for dealing with the town’s wastewater issues. The first is to maintain the status quo through an acknowledgement that the financial, economic, and political challenges of partnering with another municipality are just too big to overcome.

But even the choice of choosing to do nothing comes with a cost. The town’s wastewater treatment capacity would still have to be increased to accommodate forecasted growth, along with that which is already here. That would be a minimum increase of half a million gallons per day of increased treatment capacity, requiring at least 36 months to complete once construction is started at a cost of $22.2 million to the town.

The impact to residents of Broadway could be substantial, with water bills tripling in just five years. Customers would see increases in their wastewater bills of up to 80 percent per year for each of the first three years, followed by additional increases of 20 percent in year four and another 10 percent in year five.

Each of the three remaining options involves partnering with Sanford, which already has substantial wastewater treatment capacity and is planning to create more. The second option would provide for an interconnection with Sanford to allow Broadway to continue to own and operate its current wastewater treatment plant and collection system. This option would allow for growth in the town because Sanford has more than enough excess capacity to sell to Broadway, and the town is already using the city’s excess capacity to treat 28,000 additional gallons of wastewater per day to alleviate some of the pressure on its older treatment system.

This second option comes with a price tag about one-third less than the costs of maintaining the existing system. Broadway would pay for the interconnection costs with Sanford of approximately $14.21 million and the costs to its own customers would be increased by 60 percent per year for each of the first three years, followed by a 20 percent increase in the fourth year and another 10 percent in the fifth.

The interconnection would be completed about two and a half years after the decision is made. The advantage to the second option is that Broadway would still own its system and could theoretically pull out at any time, subject to the terms of the contract.

Another option considered by WithersRavenel is a wastewater merger arrangement with Sanford that would join the two systems into one for the treatment of wastewater so Broadway customers would become Sanford customers for sewer. As with the second proposal, the town would pick up the $14.21 million tab for the interconnection and the estimated costs of $2.4 million to decommission the existing wastewater treatment plant.

This third option is the most expensive of the four plans, since it includes interconnection costs, the decommissioning of the existing plant, and leaves the provision of water services as an extra undetermined expense.

The final choice commissioners could go with would be to create an interconnection for treating all of the town’s wastewater. This option would allow Broadway to continue to own and operate its own wastewater collection system, while again decommissioning the current outmoded treatment plant.

To do this, the town would enter into an installment purchase debt arrangement over a 15-year period, with annual payments of $1.45 million for a total cost of $14.21 million. Sewage rates would have to be raised on customers by 50 percent each year for a five-year period and the construction could be completed in about two and a half years.

Water system in same shape

WithersRavenel identified many of the same issues facing the town’s water delivery system it did in looking at wastewater – aging equipment, deteriorating pipes, and a lack of the capacity for growth projected to take place over the next few decades. But in reviewing the available options for the town’s leadership to consider in addressing the challenges of providing an adequate water supply, the consultant suggested just two options that seemed to show promise.

As with wastewater, the first option is to kick the can a little farther down the road and do nothing for now by acknowledging that the early years of the 2020s are just not ripe for tackling an issue such as making expensive improvements to the water system. In the words of the study, this route gets Broadway no closer to “a stronger, more viable water system.”

A second option is a merger similar to the wastewater proposals in which Broadway water customers would become Sanford water customers.

A decision coming sooner than later

Time won’t be on Broadway’s side in making hard decisions about what to do with the water and sewer systems. Development is happening at nearly every corner of the county and it won’t be long before it comes calling in Broadway. An aging water system getting closer every day to the end of its lifespan is serving to stress the urgency of making the right decisions.

Andrews voiced this sentiment when he said “I think it’s a lot to absorb tonight, but there is a player that’s not in the room tonight and that’s the city of Sanford.”

Commissioner Lynn West Green agreed, saying “I would not want to move forward without having Sanford as a part of the conversations.”

Commissioners have scheduled a meeting on Tuesday afternoon with their counterparts from Sanford to explore the possibilities of these mergers. Assuming there is interest between the two in working together, the first step is the preparation of a Preliminary Engineering Report, a more in-depth analysis of each of the alternatives that is vetted by civil engineers. It’s the results of that report that Broadway would use in making applications for grants to help pay for the project.

The meeting with the town’s commissioners was the first step in answering the question Andrews posed on February 28: “Do we want to grow, or do we want to stay the same?”

What the town’s leadership decides in the next couple of months could determine where Broadway’s future is headed for the remainder of this century.