CEDAR RAPIDS — A crane and stockpiles of rebar rods and dirt stand in the background as construction workers hustle about a fenced-in parking lot off 11th Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. Not until you approach does the depth and girth of a mighty trench reveal itself.
The pit sinks 30 feet deep and has a 48-by-48 foot perimeter, said Robert Kiefer, a construction inspector for the city of Cedar Rapids. Hidden at the bottom, a dozen or so workers from Williams Bros., of Peoria, Ill., assemble rebar into a 5-foot-tall frame for a concrete slab base. Eventually, a pump station will sit here, protecting the New Bohemia District from flooding.
“We are working through the winter,” Kiefer said, noting the pit gets covered overnight and warm air pumped in so nothing freezes.
This year is going to be a busy one in the history of the Cedar Rapids flood control system. It marks the first major push in construction nearly nine years after the record setting 2008 flood. It also could be the year when the biggest question is answered: where is the city going to find $630 million to pay for the system of levees, walls, pumps, gates and a new bridge shielding the east and west banks?
It’s hard to miss the evidence of activity already progressing in NewBo and Czech Village. Three of five flood protection projects — which collectively total $19.2 million — are underway, including the $5.9 million NewBo pump station.
By the end of the year, all five projects should be finished.
NewBo nearly capsized due to backups from storm sewers underground last September when the city fought back the cresting of the Cedar River at nearly 22 feet, the second highest level on record, behind the 31.2-foot crest in 2008.
The new pump station is to include a 9-foot diameter sewer pipe, which will be the conduit for drainage in NewBo to reach the Cedar River. In the event of flooding, a gate will seal the pipe so water doesn’t back up into basements, and massive 12,000-gallon-per-minute pumps — one initially and eventually three — will shoot water into the river.
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“The September 2016 flood really put an exclamation point on that problem,” Rob Davis, Cedar Rapids flood control manager, said of underground water backups.
The pump station, which by year’s end will have an aboveground brick housing similar in aesthetic to other NewBo structures, will work in conjunction with the nearby Sinclair levee. Kiefer is also the inspector for that site, which had bulldozers and backhoes busy at work this week.
Legacy Corp. of Illinois has the contract for the $4.6 million levee. Crews were removing old building foundations and digging ground for the levee this week.
Earth is being removed 15 to 20 feet down to pack in a subbase of compacted clay, which should prevent seepage due to its density. Sheet-piling driven down to bedrock will insure water doesn’t leak through a narrow band between the Alliant substation and the Cedar River that’s not wide enough for the clay base, Davis said.
Eventually, topsoil will be mounded up 13 feet — and three times as wide at the base — where grass can be planted and a 15-foot wide paved trail can be poured at the peak.
Still to come in that area is a $3.6 million pump station at the Sinclair site and a $1.8 million asbestos and debris removal project tied to an expansion of the detention basin at the site. Tricon General Construction has the contract for the pump station. The other work was scheduled to get underway, but is being rebid after questions about the bidding process.
If all goes as planned, NewBo could withstand a 20-foot river crest, which would be the third worst in the city’s history, Davis noted.
“Let’s just finish the Sinclair site so redevelopment can get going,” Davis said noting development interest in the area.
Across the river, near Czech Village, Rathje Construction Co. of Marion is executing the $3.2 million Czech Village utility relocation along A Street SW. A couple hundred feet of box culvert is staged on the ground where homes once stood. The culvert will replace the 1908 storm sewer in this area and lead to an eventual Czech Village pump station.
Utility relocation is a preliminary step to the construction of the Czech Village levee later this decade.
“We are moving utilities out of the footprint of the flood levee,” Davis said, noting they can compromise the integrity of the levee.
Other work slated for 2017 includes spring demolition of the old Best Western Cooper’s Mill, 90 F Ave. NW, which is near the footprint of the west side flood control system. City staff also plan to research options for the old Hubbard Ice building on First Street NW, which is near Cooper’s Mill.
Behind the scenes, city officials are hoping funding comes together so plans for the entire flood protection system can move forward.
To date, a payment formula has $269 million coming from the state through sales tax rebates, a $130 million local investment, and $70 million to $80 million in federal aid, which was authorized in 2014 but never allocated. Even without the elusive federal aid, a gap of about $160 million exists.
Back in August, before the 2016 flood, City Council devoted a strategic planning session to how to pay for the flood control system absent federal aid, and asked city staff to produce a series of alternatives, such as a special flood taxing district or restructuring a financing plan with the state. The alternatives were to be presented to City Council and then put out for public feedback in late 2016 or early this year.
City spokeswoman Maria Johnson said a group still is working through it, but there is no time line for the alternatives.
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“I think now those are all on the back burner for the time being while there’s a full-court press to be included in the infrastructure bill,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said.
Since August, a few things have happened.
The city’s challenges with flooding got national attention thanks to the September flood. Congress prioritized the Cedar Rapids flood control system among a few others above other nationwide needs in the 2016 water infrastructure bill. Iowa submitted $230 million for the Cedar Rapids flood control project at No. 3 among five projects statewide in response to a call for nominations for President Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which could be passed in his first 100 days.
“It’s looking really positive at this point in time,” Corbett said. “The state included us in their list, so we have an endorsement from state government. It’s a legitimate project ready to go. This is not just a wish list. This is ready to go.”
Corbett said city leaders plan to circle back with state lawmakers on what the best approach is to see if the state would release its $269 million share in 10 or 15 years, instead of 20. This could save Cedar Rapids on inflationary costs, he said, however, prospects are unclear given state budget cuts planned for this year.
Cedar Rapids City Council member Scott Olson said, “I think it is real this time.”
If the project is funded through Trump’s plan at the $230 amount, the federal portion would cover the gap.
“If that happens, we’re done,” Olson said. “We’d be able to pay for the flood system.”
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