By Richard Breen
Most of municipal government isn't sexy. It’s about potholes and fire hydrants and sidewalks and water lines—boring things, but things that impact quality of life for local residents.
“If you do the boring stuff right, it really makes a difference,” says Cayce Mayor Elise Partin.
One major project that Partin hopes will make a difference is a $26 million water line upgrade scheduled to be completed this fall. Cayce is replacing approximately 250,000 linear feet of water distribution lines while coordinating with tasks that range from constructing a new water tower to streetscaping Knox Abbott Drive.
“The majority of our water lines had not been replaced since the 1940s, when they were put in,” Partin says.
A city with aging water lines is not unusual.
“The condition of municipal water systems is challenged—not only in South Carolina, but across the country,” says Jeff Shacker, field services manager with the Municipal Association of South Carolina. “Many of our municipal water systems have construction activity.”
In a 2017 report, the American Water Works Association estimated that, nationwide, “restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, if we are to maintain current levels of water service. Delaying the investment can result in degrading water service, increasing water service disruptions, and increasing expenditures for emergency repairs.”
Pay me now or pay me later
The dilemma for water systems in cities such as Cayce is a familiar one to any homeowner with a balky air conditioner or a driver with a temperamental sedan.
“We had various different types of pipes that were failing in one place or another,” Partin says. “When you have repairs like that, you’re reacting, not being proactive.”
Partin says Cayce leaders wondered if there was a better use of taxpayer dollars.
“Instead of constantly fixing things, what if we got in front of that?” Partin says. “So that’s what we did. We’re replacing about 75 percent of the water lines in the entire city.”
Cayce financed the project through a program run by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and S.C. Rural Infrastructure Authority.
“We have such a great credit rating that we got a loan from the State Revolving Fund for just a little over 1 percent,” Partin says. “You can’t beat that.”
The city decided to divide the project into portions and hire a different contractor for each.
“We did it for a couple of reasons,” Partin says. “One, we didn’t want to go outside the bounds of anybody’s bonding capacity. And we wanted it going on all at the same time so it would be done within that 18-to-24-month time frame. And it’s worked pretty darn well.”
Possible insurance savings
The project, begun in April 2017, remains on schedule. At completion, more than 3,800 water meters will have been replaced, as well as all the city’s fire hydrants, plus additional hydrants. It will impact 3,670 of Cayce’s 4,500 customers in the city (it serves another 3,000-plus customers outside the city limits).
A new water tower has been constructed near the intersection of Charleston Highway and Airport Boulevard. With the new hydrants and stronger water pressure, Cayce could receive a better fire suppression rating from the Insurance Services Office.
“Hopefully it pays off for our residents in lower homeowners insurance rates,” Partin says.
The city also sought to coordinate with S.C. Department of Transportation projects.
“We knew which roads were going to be paved, so we just said hold on until after the fall,” Partin says.
As work is done along Knox Abbott Drive, the city is also implementing its Pedestrian Safety and Traffic Calming Project, which will relocate sidewalks and improve landscaping.
“As we’re tearing up those sidewalks, we’re going to go back in and put them in per this new plan,” Partin says. “That helps to save us money by doing that all at the same time.”
Businesses along Knox Abbott are anticipating the sidewalk improvements—designed to draw more walkers, and ultimately, more shoppers—as much as the new water line.
“I’m hoping that it works,” says Lon Starkey, manager of Ready to Play, a shop for gamers.
Steve Seremetis, owner of Tony’s Pizza, says if rusty water lines are 60-70 years old, “they’ve got to go.”
“You can’t patch them,” he says. “If they can beautify the area and widen the sidewalks without taking away my parking spaces, it would be good for business.”