Metro Water District is charging a monthly fee, ranging from $3 for residential users up to $150 for large customers, to pay for $1.1 million in water line relocation that's part of the La Cañada Road widening project between Calle Concordia and Ina roads in the Northwest.

Metro Water is calling it the "RTA Waterline Relocation Fee," making reference to the Regional Transportation Authority, which is paying for part of the road improvement with voter-approved sales tax revenues.

RTA doesn't like the reference; it has been "wrongly identified as a culprit," RTA executive director Gary Hayes wrote in a June 10 letter to Metro Water, "and we insist that the waterline fee adopted drop reference to the RTA as the cause."

Metro Water hasn't moved away from the reference.

"This road project is occurring because of RTA funding under the RTA plan," Mark Stratton, general manager for Metro Water, wrote back. "Since this is an RTA project, the name of this fee is appropriate."

Stratton said the RTA fee is "a simple identifier," he said. "Every document associates this project with RTA." But RTA has "real heartburn" with the use of its name, he said.

Metro Water plans to start work on its line relocation this week. The county is opening bids on La Cañada later this month, and "we need to be out of their way" when road construction begins, Stratton said in an interview last week.

"We are not happy to have to set this RTA fee, but we feel we have no choice," said Metro chairman Jim Doyle in a July newsletter to Metro Water's 18,300 water users. "We are required to move our waterlines for these RTA road projects at our own cost, and without any financial support from the RTA."

Metro Water is using a line of credit to pay for the work, originally estimated at $1.5 million. Revenue from the RTA fee is expected to be about $65,000 a month. It is being placed in an escrow account intended only to repay the loan. "We're hoping it's about a year and a half," Stratton said. "Once the short term note is paid off, it will come off" monthly bills.

On June 10, Hayes objected to Metro Water's use of RTA "as the reason for Metro Water District's need to establish a waterline relocation fee." Any order to relocate lines lies with Pima County, he argued.

"We believe the RTA is being made a scapegoat for Metro Water's lack for preparation for long anticipated roadway projects," Hayes said.

La Cañada widening has been "on the books for quite some time," Stratton said. For two years, "we knew there was some relocation involved. We knew it's our obligation."

But Metro Water didn't know the extent of work until Pima County, manager of the project, completed its design.

"Historically, relocations have been relatively minor, and absorbed in a normal operating budget," Stratton said. Not La Cañada. Beneath and along it, Metro Water has 18,000 linear feet of water line, both lengthwise and crosswise, in 4-, 6- and 8-inch diameters.

Most of those lines date to the 1960s and 1970s, Stratton estimates. They may be two-thirds through a useful life.

"Not everything needs to be replaced," Stratton said, "only where there are conflicts with the new roadway project." The county is making significant changes to drainage on the La Cañada corridor, requiring more water line work. "When you see the county's plans with drainage, you'll understand why so much needs to be moved," Stratton said.

The original estimate for relocation of $1.5 million "was more than our capital budget for non-bond funded projects," Stratton said. "We don't have the revenues to pay for this out of our operating budget. We're not as big as the other utilities. We can't spread it very far."

Metro Water could have raised rates to cover the costs. But, Stratton said, "once rates are raised, they never go down." The Metro board decided, then, to identify the separate "RTA" line item. It held a hearing before its users in June.

Metro Water has experienced reduced sales that have affected its budget.

"Water utilities have seen a reduction in revenues," Stratton said, and Metro Water's reduction has been as much as 18 percent. Jobs have been absorbed through attrition. Then, "the first place you cut is your capital program. We've had a fairly significant decrease in revenues. We've tightened things down."

There are eight other road projects likely to affect Metro Water infrastructure in the Northwest, Stratton said. None have the impact of this stretch of La Cañada, which is in "the heart of the major portion of our service area." On Magee, for example, "most of our stuff is far enough off the roadway" that relocation won't be required. And, "if revenues increase, we can absorb" other relocation requirements because of such road projects. "It'll be on a case by case basis."

On July 9, when the Pima County Department of Transportation and RTA met with residents at Pima College's Northwest Campus to discuss an upcoming major road project, the Magee / Cortaro improvement from Oracle to Thornydale, a resident asked why Metro Water was being asked to absorb the cost of line relocation associated with road improvement projects.

"As much as we can, we don't want them to relocate" lines, consultant Bill Schlesinger said. "We don't make them move the lines unless" they're "in the way of our improvements, and we can't avoid them."

Road builders prefer utility lines "move to the outer edge of a right of way," Pima County DOT engineer Rick Ellis said. "We don't want to impact the roadway. When there are upgrades to other facilities, that's their own investment and decision."

County staff does not want "utilities underneath the pavement," Stratton said. He understands the rationale. "If a line breaks, it creates quite a bit of road damage," and subsequent repairs never bring the road back to its original state. Further, Stratton said, manholes create issues with road surfaces.

"I can appreciate that to a certain extent," Stratton said. "But is it really that big of an issue so that it requires hundreds of thousands of dollars to move a utility?"

He points out the county "approved the subdivision that required the utility services. We're in there because they approved a subdivision that needs the services." Yet the county won't pay for line relocation.

Priscilla Cornelio, head of the county DOT, said RTA policies and procedures indicate "they only pay for utility relocations if the utility has prior rights." On La Cañada, for example, Western Area Power Administration poles had to be moved, "and we had to pay for the relocations." In the case of other utilities, "it's our roadway they're in. They went in at risk. They knew at some point there would be improvements. We work very, very closely with utilities, and try to keep them in place. Sometimes, there's no way to avoid that."

"We have been absolutely consistent in our utility reimbursement policy, and all utilities, both public and private, are being equally treated on RTA-funded projects," Hayes reiterated.

"I'm not saying we're totally without some obligation," Stratton said, but utilities should not be "unfairly burdened" by disproportionate shares of the cost. "Certainly, we can make it easier with both sides."

 "We're all in this together," said Stratton, who's had conversations with county officials to determine better ways to move forward. "My goal as a manager is to try and work with the county to ensure that, on future roadway designs, we can minimize the impact of relocations as much as is practicable."

There were "a few vocal people at the public hearing" on the fee, Stratton said. "They said 'why isn't the county paying for it?' Those issues are beyond our control."

He has been "pleasantly surprised" that "for the most part, our customers have accepted this as a cost of doing business."

Stratton lives in the neighborhood.

"I understand it's needed," he said last week. "I know what that roadway's like during rush hour traffic. It's a necessary project."

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