Home News and Features Rough Roads, Leaking Pipes: Montpelier Faces Infrastructure Woes

Rough Roads, Leaking Pipes: Montpelier Faces Infrastructure Woes

Cracked and potholed pavement on North Street in Montpelier. Photo by John Lazenby.
On two subjects there seems to be little debate in Montpelier: many of the city’s roads are in bone-rattling, suspension-shaking condition, and its aged water system is plagued with leaks.

With 41 miles of paved roads and 52 miles of mostly century-old water pipes, plus a water pressure problem that has caused regular water main breaks, Montpelier’s Department of Public Works has its hands full. 

The city council has been attempting to set aside money for the past 10 years with a goal to fund its capital plan at $2.4 million per year, in part for paving. The Department of Public Works is applying for a grant to help pay for LIDAR, an automated, laser-driven system for mapping pavement conditions. And the city is in year six of an $83 million, 50-year water and sewer plan that residents will foot the bill for over that period through slowly increasing user fees (along with state and federal grants and loans).

The Bridge conducted an informal online survey asking residents about Montpelier’s infrastructure; many of the 62 respondents expressed concern about road conditions and the water system. In a series of interviews for this article city officials outlined plans for addressing the issues.

The Problem 

“[I’m] shocked, appalled, dismayed, flabbergasted at the poor condition of streets in Montpelier!!! This, the Capital City of Vermont … it’s unbelievable!” wrote one person who responded to The Bridge’s infrastructure survey.

“Up here on North Street, with the worst pavement in the city,” wrote Steve Sease on Front Porch Forum, “it sounds as if our street has not been repaved for years because the city plans to replace the pipes as part of a rebuild and has been putting off the expense. … That is a double blow. We lose water periodically and get to wreck our suspensions as we drive to Shaw’s to buy drinking water.” 

Public Works director Kurt Motyka affirmed that North Street “needs other infrastructure improvements including water main upgrades.” He said the city has no plans for work on North Street for next summer, “but this is a high priority area for us.”

When asked to rate the condition of Montpelier’s roads and sidewalks from one to five (with five being the best) in The Bridge’s survey, the average rating was 1.8. Asked to rate the condition of Montpelier’s water system, 38% said “needs improvement” and 45% said “unsatisfactory.”

The survey also asked “In the past five years, have you personally experienced water system problems?” The majority (69%) reported having received a boil water notice; 48% said their street had closed due to work on the water mains; 27%  said they’d lost water service; and 29% reported an “unpleasant taste.”

“City council needs to prioritize repairing roads and replacing water mains,” wrote another survey respondent. “… Given our very high property taxes, we should have much better infrastructure conditions in Montpelier than we do.”

Another respondent had a different take: “I don’t think asking the citizens about public infrastructure is useful, since the vast majority of residents have no experience or understanding of [the] complexity, maintenance, or interconnectedness of these systems.”

What Gets Fixed and Why

Although counterintuitive, the order in which roads get fixed isn’t necessarily “worst first” according to Zach Blodgett, deputy director of Public Works. 

“The methodology of worst-first is the exact opposite of how you’re supposed to manage pavement,” Blodgett said. “The streets in the worst condition today are the ones you should be avoiding repaving.” 

Roads in very poor condition have already reached their maximum cost per square yard, Blodgett explained. “Economically, you’re better off with regular maintenance of the roads in good condition.”

That doesn’t mean that the city entirely ignores the worst of its roads, but they get added to a mix that includes upgrades to the roads in better condition along with work on those that might take out your exhaust system if you drive too fast. For example, in 2022, some roads long in disrepair — such as Wheelock Street and Pleasantview — were repaved, but five other projects focused on maintenance of roads already in good shape.

“We do take sort of a mixed approach,” Motyka said. “At a certain point the roads become unserviceable in terms of plowing and travel. We have a balanced approach to managing all of the streets. It’s very important to preserve what we have, otherwise we’d never catch up.”

In 2022, the DPW completed 13 paving projects, five of which were “fog seal,” essentially a spray of liquid asphalt that penetrates into pavement, extending its life. For comparison, in 2021 — a pandemic year — the city only completed two paving projects, and in 2018–2020, it completed five projects per year. 

Pavement Condition Index

The city has a system to rate its pavement on a scale from one to 100 called the pavement condition index, or “PCI.” The PCI is a computer program that provides data about road conditions in an attempt to remove subjectivity, although the information fed into the system comes from two interns who drive over every street in the city to assess their condition, Blodgett said. 

Updated every three years, the PCI drives the city’s annual paving plan. 

“It takes a stab at what is the most economical solution to repaving your roads,” Blodgett said. “You give it your budget, it then spits out a report showing you how you should do what you can within our budget.”

The only problem with the PCI: “The program will never select the streets that have already failed,” Blodgett said. So Blodgett applies his own logic to the system, preferring a mix of projects — those recommended by the PCI, a few of the worst streets, and working with Motyka, whose focus has been on the city’s water systems. 

Some streets are so bad — and require not only repaving, but entirely new underground water pipes — that it doesn’t make financial sense to fix them until both projects are lined up and funding is in place. For example, East State Street will be fully overhauled in the next couple of years, but the funding for the $7.2 million project had to go through a bonding process and city vote first. 

Blodgett has recently applied for a municipal planning grant to pay for LIDAR to create “a high resolution map of the baseline pavement conditions of the road network within Montpelier.” It would automate the three-week long process conducted by city interns, he said, and provide “a value for every 20 feet of road — everywhere.” Perhaps best, in Blodgett’s view, is that LIDAR eliminates human interpretation of pavement conditions. 

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve found money to support it.” The grant application went in last week; it’s not clear when the city will know if it gets funded.

Now scoring 100 on the Pavement Condition Index, upper Main Street in Montpelier was repaved this fall. Photo by John Lazenby.

The Cost

Infrastructure isn’t cheap. At Montpelier’s last town meeting in March 2022, voters passed $27.4 million in bonds — $25.4 million of that slated for infrastructure work such as the total rebuilding of East State Street, and upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. On top of that, the city fund that helps pay for paving — the capital plan —  was at $2.149 million this year, after having taken a hit during the pandemic. It is funded “mostly by property taxes,” said City Manager Bill Fraser. He said the capital plan “includes debt service payments, equipment purchases, paving, sidewalks, building improvements, etc.”

“Starting in FY12 the goal was to put a total of capital investments … of $2.4 million per year. We finally got there in FY21,” Fraser noted. “The idea is to get to $2.4 million and maintain it or increase it. That is a sustainable amount for us to get caught up and keep the roads in decent shape.”

“We had to cut because of the pandemic; we’re getting back to the full level,” Fraser said. “All of this was aided by the ARPA money which allowed us to catch up on work cut due to the pandemic and to add more projects in both the general fund and water/sewer funds.”

Not everyone agrees with Fraser’s assessment.

“When I became mayor 10 years ago,” said former mayor and city councilor John Hollar, “it was a high priority for me and all our council members to get roads and sidewalks into reasonable condition. Council unanimously agreed to direct city staff to tell us what it would take to get our roads and sidewalks into a reasonable state of repair and to maintain them.”

“Our poor infrastructure comes at a tremendous cost to our residents,” he added. “More on car repair, hazardous to pedestrians, many roads almost impassable to bicyclists. I don’t understand why we are here after it was such a high priority 10 years ago.”

Water: The Master Plan

The DPW is now in the sixth year of a 50-year master plan designed to eventually replace all of its aged water mains. While high water pressure, topping 200 psi in places, as reported in VT Digger last week, is one of the reasons for the regular occurrence of burst water pipes, there’s another. Sixty percent of the 52 miles of water pipe that snake underneath the city is 100-year-old cast iron, Motyka said. 

So in 2017, the Department of Public Works wrote the master plan to replace all of the older pipe with High Density Polyethene Pipe over the next 50 years, at a total cost of $83,230,000. 

“This piping has a 250 psi pressure rating and has elastic properties, which allows is to absorb pressure spikes,” Motyka said. “The pipe has fusion (melted) joints providing a leak free system as opposed to gasketed connections. Since it is not metallic it is not subject to corrosion.”

The whole thing will be paid for over time by a combination of taxpayer funded municipal appropriations (including bonds), state revolving loan funds, and an annual 1% increase in water and sewer fees (plus annual increases at the rate of inflation). By fiscal year 2072, the plan is supposed to be complete, and presumably it will be time to start over again.

Water Water Everywhere

The city has seen 260 water main breaks in the past 10 years, Motyka said, with a cost of $1.3 million in emergency repairs.

This year alone, pipes burst in a Baird Street apartment due to the city’s unusually high water pressure, a water main broke on Gallison Hill in early November, and School Street saw five water main breaks. In fact, School Street is currently closed to traffic while the water main gets replaced, a project Motyka would not have scheduled for winter — or during the school year — if he could help it.

“Staff felt it couldn’t wait,” he said. “If we did not address it now we were going to be out there making a lot of repairs this winter.” The $200,000 project is funded by a combination of American Rescue Plan Act money and “a little surplus from the last operating budget,” he said.

Montpelier’s notoriously high water pressure has been blamed for the majority of its water main breaks. This year, the state Agency of Natural Resources has required the city to address water pressure issues in order for it to be permitted to run its water system. 

The city could install pressure reducing devices, Motyka said, but the process would require not only adding pressure valves, but constructing a series of booster pumps to get the water from where it’s currently pumped — high on a hill above the city on Berlin Street — into town, and then back uphill to the many residences on the other side of town. Motyka estimates it will cost roughly $30 million to get all of this done, and require acquisition of scarce open land, plus capital and operating costs. On top of that, he said, “We would have to halt the master plan and reallocate all the pipe replacement funds.”

To answer the state permit requirements, Motyka said the city is working on an engineering analysis with Dufresne Group “to evaluate alternatives in reducing the water system pressure.”

“We are making progress — we have been making steady progress for quite a while to replace the pipes for pipes designed to handle the high pressure the city does have. We are also looking at ways to reduce pressure spikes in the system,” he said.

What’s Next

Next year all of Route 2 within city limits is planned for paving, Motyka said, adding that “This is a State project but will be supported by DPW.”

Also lined up for next year is reconstruction of the Grout Road bridge, and the East State Street reconstruction project will get started. Local streets paving funding is anticipated to go towards preventative maintenance, Motyka said, noting that the city council has not yet adopted the Capital Improvements plan for FY24.

A New Utility 

A new city utility — with new fees — may be coming your way. The city has been in the process of creating a stormwater utility, designed to raise funds to help pay for the cost of stormwater management. 

The upshot is the utility will charge property owners for the amount of impervious surface on their property, said DPW Director Kurt Motyka. Anywhere rain can’t soak into land, such as gravel driveways, paved areas and rooftops, is considered impervious, he explained. 

The idea is that the money raised will fund replacing aging metal culverts, street sweeping, and catchment basin cleaning Motyka said.

According to the latest DPW weekly newsletter, the city council has contracted with the environmental firm Brown and Caldwell to develop the Montpelier Stormwater Utility, “and will help conduct a robust public engagement process for this project.”