If you've driven on Dupont or Bryant avenues near Lake Harriet, you've probably noticed what looks like a minimum-security prison stretching across West 44th Street. The chain-link fence holds no prisoners - except perhaps the East Harriet residents around 44th & Colfax Avenue South.
The fence guards a massive pit in which city crews are digging a tunnel to lay 2,000 feet of storm drain that, among other improvements, will help solve flooding problems that had occurred near 44th & Aldrich.
Residents have had to contend with a gaping pit, lots of noise and emissions, and traffic obstacles galore. The tunneling began last June. At the earliest, it will last through summer number two.
Chris Ingram, a resident on the 4400 block of Colfax Avenue South, said the project has been an irritating hassle. A generator blares 30 feet from his home, as it has for the past 11 months. "You're inundated with diesel fumes," he said.
For some, the health threats have been more immediate. Another block resident, who asked for anonymity, said when her father needed an ambulance, the project's formidable traffic obstacles delayed it.
Public Works Project Manager Kelly MacIntyre said she understands residents' frustrations and tried to alter the project's schedule to appease neighbors.
Though tunneling began in June, project work started in January 2004. Said Ingram, "At first, it was a lot of driveway blocking - little, inconsiderate things."
The tunneling presented bigger problems, but Ingram seems most peeved by the city's response. Communication with the city and the project manager has been "nonexistent," he said.
MacIntyre said she's responded to Ingram via e-mail, and the city has also hosted public meetings and updated a Web site numerous times to keep information flowing to residents.
It should be noted that since the Southwest Journal began to inquire about the project issues and delays in early May, some residents said the noise has gotten better and equipment has recently been moved.
The unnamed resident referenced earlier in the story spoke of the positive changes in an e-mail and said, "It must be 'light at the end of the tunnel' time or something. Pun intended."
MacIntyre acknowledges the tunneling has lasted longer than expected.
In June 2004, the city predicted the project would be done by May 27, 2005. Public Works hosted a public meeting to discuss project impacts and mentioned that delays were possible. MacIntyre said, "staff reiterated that this type of project frequently runs into construction difficulties, which could slow construction and push back the completion date."
The anticipated delays happened. The city had to wait for Xcel Energy to move utility poles, and MacIntyre said there were also "tunneling difficulties associated with the soils encountered during the digging."
She explained that tunneling loundered because the soil varied between loose and tough consistency, requiring multiple tunneling techniques. "The stiff soils for example require high tunneling pressures, but the loose soils are difficult to control when the pressures are too high," she said.
To catch up with the schedule, the contractor has extended working hours. "The crew is currently working 58 hours a week," she said.
That's a blessing and a curse for residents, who may see the project done soon but have to contend with Saturday shifts, added in February and continuing until the project is complete. (Neighbors get peace and quiet from Saturday to Monday of Memorial Day weekend.)
In a late April update on the project's Web page, Public Works staff states that the Dupont-to-Fremont segment will start this month and take two months to complete.
Additional crews are preparing the pit at Dupont and another crew will remove the Colfax pit, allowing tunneling to start at Fremont. New tunneling equipment has been brought in to better deal with the uncooperative soil and sand found.
MacIntyre said the entire project - which includes a news stormwater treatment chamber - should be complete in late September.
She said her department is looking for further ways to minimize neighborhood disruption and will host a public planning meeting to update residents. The meeting is tentatively set for Tuesday, May 24, 7 p.m. at the Lynnhurst Community Center, 1345 W. Minnehaha Pkwy.
"We certainly recognize that this kind of construction can be disruptive to folks living in the neighborhood, which is why we work hard to keep people informed about the process," MacIntyre said.
Another project just down the road
While the Flood Area 19 project struggles towards completion, its delays will slow another planned Southwest project, Flood Area 24.
The Area 24 project will reduce sewer overflow, repair and reconstruct storm drains and connected to Area 17.
Area 24 runs from Lyndale Avenue South to Aldrich Avenue on West 45th Street, then curves north on Aldrich running up to West 44th Street. Work on Area 24 cannot continue until Area 19 is done.
For more information about the project, surf to tinyurl.com/aeoox, which will take you to the appropriate city Web page.