Bonfanti: Flooding is a Regional Problem, Needs Regional Solution

Mayor Michael Bonfanti is once again calling on federal and state officials to realize that Peabody needs significant outside aid to keep the flood waters at bay.

Mayor Michael Bonfanti said the flooding that plagues the downtown every time there’s a bad storm isn’t unique to Peabody and neither should the solution be.

“By the way, Salem floods more than the city of Peabody,” Bonfanti told city councilors last week, adding that the neighboring cities have been working closely together on flood mitigation plans.

“Salem is now realizing this is really a regional problem,” he said. “So it’s about time we addressed it as a regional problem, especially the financing.”

Bonfanti once again called on federal and state officials to realize that – Peabody has been flooding since 1954 – take some leadership and help the cities out. Over the past several years, Peabody has been able to snag grants here and there, but not nearly enough to fund the entire project.

Bonfanti said flooding is a chronic problem that affects everything from personal safety and the local economy to jobs. He said it also creates a damaging misperception for the downtown that deters commercial investment.

Council President Anne Manning-Martin commended Bonfanti for diligently plugging away at flood plans during his tenure as mayor.

“You never waivered once, you have guts,” she said.

Bonfanti also corrected another misperception about the downtown, which was apparent in remarks by councilors – it’s not below sea level.

Bonfanti said the lowest point is on Howley Street and it’s nine feet above sea level – the monument in the square is actually 22 feet above the sea. He said it’s an important distinction, which if it were otherwise could turn away any prospect of government assistance.

The reason Bonfanti and other city officials and project consultants from AECOM were before the council last week was to present a general update as promised at the 30 percent design mark.

The project timeline has Bonfanti seeking a bond authorization from the council in December, full design complete by March, construction begins in June pending funding and the project wraps up by September 2014.

Paul Walker of AECOM explained the background of the flood mitigation plan one more time for councilors – essentially it is broken into three separate phases, with the city responsible for the first two and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tackling the third.

  • Phase 1 will install new wider twin culverts down Foster Street, underneath Peabody Square and the Mill Street municipal parking lot, and out to where the North River is visible again next to the on Wallis Street. The new culverts would be prefabricated concrete blocks or barrels, four feet by 10 feet. Construction would begin at the Wallis Street end and work upstream.
  • Phase 2 will widen the river canal to 38 feet – it ranges now between 11 and 22 feet in places now – from Wallis Street to Howley Street and also replaces the Caller Street bridge.
  • Phase 3 will continue to widen the North River down past Howley Street into Salem at Grove Street, creating a bypass channel at one point. The new width would match-up with the Salem end of the river down near Grove Street. The Mass. Department of Transportation would be tasked with replacing the bridges at Howley and Grove streets.

Right now, the city is working on the first phase, which is estimated to cost around $15 million. In conjunction with the work downtown, a handful of upstream water storage projects are underway simultaneously – some have already been completed.

“I’m a big proponent of this,” said At-Large Councilor and mayoral hopeful Ted Bettencourt. “This has been hanging around for a while now and it’s about time the city take action here.”

Phase 1 will mean square drains quicker

One thing the presentation brought to light was that the only improvement to flooding in the downtown may be that the water recedes much quicker in a bad storm. That’s partly because that until the North River can be widened in the second phase of the project, only single culverts can be installed near the post office. The river simply isn’t wide enough to accommodate the twin culverts, which will be installed on Foster Street.

Walker said that’s only a temporary situation, which will be fixed once Phase 2 begins. He said that when 5 or 6 inches of rain pelt the area in three hours, it’s just too much water to pass through the culverts and catch basins without overflowing.

The water should drain much quicker, however, he said.

At-Large Councilor James Liacos said that wouldn’t really help revitalization efforts in the downtown if it just shortens the period of damage. He and At-Large Councilor David Gravel wanted to know what the new capacity for water would be with the new culverts.

Walker said he could provide that at a future date once modeling was complete.

“In two years, Peabody Square is going to flood; we’ll be underwater and we’ll get a black eye because we spent $15 million to solve flooding, and we’re not,” said Ward 6 Councilor Barry Sinewitz. He said it’s important to point that out for the public and he does still support doing the work because something needs to be done.

Another point brought up by Bonfanti was that tidal gates do need to be installed on the Salem end – a study in the 1960s also called for this, he said. When the tide comes in, and the canal is already overflowing, it just leads to worse flooding.

Community Development Director Karen Sawyer was hesitant to give the council an updated figure on the cost until the construction design is complete, however, saying relocation for utility lines was still being worked out and could significantly change the cost. The city predicted the .

Dealing with utility lines and traffic downtown

Walker said the trickiest part of installing the new culverts would be to do so while causing the least disruption both to utilities going through the square and traffic patterns. Lines for phone service, gas, electric, cable, water and sewer, not to mention storm drains, all pass under Peabody Square.

The preliminary design for Foster Street shows that in some instances, such as along the municipal parking lot, it’s easier and much cheaper to install the culverts in a path around existing utility lines, and thus avoid relocating them, rather than a straight shot down to the square.

Walker also outlined the plan to deal with traffic through the square during construction.

“We thought it prudent to remove the monument temporarily to not risk damaging it,” he said, adding it will also open up the area to work in.

Once the monument is moved off-site, construction would be done in three sections, and two lanes of traffic in each direction would remain open the entire time. Essentially, the lanes would be shifted to one side to allow space for excavation and after that section of culvert was installed and the road repaved, work would shift to the next section along with another shift in the traffic lanes.

“The plan is to do the square, get it done and get out of there,” Walker said.

Sawyer said the city has gained eight of nine land easements from private property owners needed to move ahead with Phase 1. The last individual has been outside the country and the city is still waiting to hear back from that person, she said.

City officials have also been working at securing similar easements for Phase 2.


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