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March 23, 2011

Canal knowledge

The Jeffersonville canal: pipe dream, nightmare or something in between?

During a meet-and-greet before last year’s Louisville mayoral primaries, I asked a Democratic hopeful if he’d heard about the proposed canal in Jeffersonville.

He had not.

The point is not to make light of said candidate (who ended up not winning) as much as to say, this regionalism thing still has a long way to go.

The story of how Jeffersonville came to ponder its own version of the San Antonio river walk, like so many tales of municipal drama, begins with sewage. Like many older cities, Jeffersonville mingles sewage and stormwater. During heavy rain events, raw sewage often flows into the Ohio River.

Back in the day, when Mom cooked with lard and before reality TV, that was not thought to be a big deal. But for years now, the feds have battled with communities up and down the river over the same issue (including Louisville and New Albany, to name two recent examples).

Those interactions are often a strange dance in which posture and rhetoric seem to exert as much bearing on eventual outcomes as any other factor. Cities and towns long ago refined the fine art of playing possum with regulators.

But as Jeffersonville Mayor Tom Galligan sees it, you can only outrun the grim reaper for so long. Jeffersonville bit the bullet and signed a consent decree in August 2009, accepting a $165,000 fine (a figure that was negotiated down from $8 million) and committing to solve its combined sewage overflow problems.

The city’s agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t stipulate how that problem will be solved, only that it will. The feds certainly didn’t tell the city to build a canal. That was the mayor’s idea. Galligan contends a canal would fix the overflow problem and a separate problem: chronic flooding in the west end of town. He also foresees an economic development windfall from related residential and commercial development along the canal.

But it’s controversial. Critics say the Galligan administration understates the ultimate cost of a canal and overstates the cost of the most obvious alternative, an underground pipe system. They also say the economic benefits of the canal project are highly speculative.

To make matters more interesting, the issue is running smack into election season. Galligan faces three Democratic challengers in the May primary, including his predecessor, who says he would kill the canal project outright.

The canal would be about 4,400 feet long, 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, and would carry treated wastewater. It would begin at a new park on the east side of Interstate 65 and run across Court Avenue before flowing into an underground outfall that releases into the Ohio.

The canal is part of an overall project to resolve numerous related issues. The Galligan administration says that package will cost as much as $144 million. The sewage overflow problem could also be resolved with underground pipes, which Galligan says would cost about $200 million and offer no return on investment.

Former Mayor Rob Waiz, 48, who lost to Galligan in the 2007 Democratic primary, calls the canal a boondoggle and tells LEO Weekly he would stop it and try to reopen negotiations with the EPA. He contends the timeframe laid out in the consent decree is too short — 15 years — and will cost residential sewer users too much.

The other Democratic hopefuls — Teresa Perkins and Kevin Vissing — are more circumspect.

Vissing, 54, who serves on the Clark County Council and works for a natural gas company, says he’s studied the canal closely and likes what he sees. “I agree that a canal will be cheaper than (buried) pipe and also carry more water,” he says. “I’m a farm kid and I work for a gas company, so I think I have common sense on that.” If elected, Vissing says he would hire independent engineering consultants to scrutinize the numbers and advise him on whether the project should continue.

Perkins, 62, a recently retired school administrator seeking her first elected office, wants more information. She agrees the canal is a big idea and gives Galligan credit for tying it to economic development, but says she would conduct her own due diligence.

“I’m an avid researcher,” she says. “I always needed to see data before I spent taxpayer dollars in the school corporation, and I’m in that process now (with the canal).”

One Republican candidate awaits the Democratic primary winner in the fall. Mike Moore, 46, a Clark County commissioner who switched parties for the mayoral race, also is wary of the canal.

“I can’t give you a detailed answer on what way I’d go,” he says. “Tom has all the engineers and consultants. (The canal) may be the best idea, but without having all of that information, how do we know? We have to come up with an option that doesn’t chase people off because of sewer rates and tax rates that are so high people can’t afford to live here.”

Former Jeffersonville Mayor Dale Orem, a Republican who is now an appointee to the city drainage board, was skeptical about the canal initially, but tells LEO Weekly he’s now convinced of its viability. “At this time, I think it’s the better of the two alternatives we have.”

Mayor Galligan, 64, says he doesn’t like the thought of spending millions on sewers, but because the EPA has forced the city’s hand, he’d like to generate benefits in the process. He says a canal and related development will draw visitors and complement the Big Four pedestrian bridge that will connect to downtown Jeffersonville. The city recently secured financing for its portion of the Big Four project, and bids are expected to be taken in the fall.

Galligan doesn’t see the election as a referendum on the canal, per se, but says it is a referendum on “the vision for this community’s future… The city has several choices; only one (candidate) says he won’t do it. If I lose, the voters have chosen that they don’t want to do this.”