FEMA fund allocation leaves town in financial lurch

Posted 11/28/19

PITTSBORO — FEMA funding for the replacement of the bridge on Pittsboro Elementary School Road was far less than the town anticipated.

The bridge, which crosses Roberson Creek near Sanford Road …

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FEMA fund allocation leaves town in financial lurch

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PITTSBORO — FEMA funding for the replacement of the bridge on Pittsboro Elementary School Road was far less than the town anticipated.

The bridge, which crosses Roberson Creek near Sanford Road in Pittsboro, was overtaken and destroyed during Hurricane Florence in 2018. The road, often used by school buses and families accessing Pittsboro Elementary, was closed for a an extended period while the town discussed its options to address the damage with FEMA. The town, because of outcry in the community about the inaccessibility of the road, employed a temporary fix to return traffic to the road while discussions with FEMA continued.

It had been the expectation of town staff, per numerous board meetings on the subject, that FEMA would be inclined to provide “mitigation” funds — funds that are provided to improve the bridge and its culvert to try to prevent a washout from flooding in the future. The town then engaged WithersRavenel to begin the engineering and design process for a replacement culvert and bridge.

On November 12, the town board learned that FEMA had determined the amount of funding it would allocate for the bridge — $49,000 — was far less than the estimated cost of the project. Town manager Bryan Gruesbeck noted that staff had been “assured by FEMA” that the project was a good candidate for mitigation funding. However, FEMA ultimately decided that since the culvert was not damaged, just the structure of the bridge, the mitigation funding would not qualify.

Prior to learning of the amount of FEMA funding, the town had already allocated funds for the repair and initial design work estimated to be about $115,000, leaving it in the hole by $72,000 while at the same time having only a partially completed design plan. The contract with WithersRavenel, which staff put on hold as soon as it learned of the FEMA amount, still has $55,000 remaining for its completion.

Town staff provided the board three options to consider.

If the town chose to move forward with the replacement bridge project without FEMA support it would cost the town an additional $491,000. The town could also stop all work and contracts, “cutting their losses” as Commissioner Jay Farrell described it, and make no more improvements.

The board decided, in a 3-1 vote, with Farrell the lone dissenting vote, to complete the contract with WithersRavenel to receive the complete design and engineering plans for replacement culvert and bridge.

Farrell argued that the bridge was “serving its purpose” and did not want to spend any more money on the project. Pittsboro engineer Elizabeth Goodsen noted that the culvert and bridge did “appear to be in better shape” than previously, but likely the repairs would have been different if they had indication from FEMA that the funding for full replacement would not be available.

Commissioner Bett Wilson Foley was concerned that “in a couple of years [the town] will be dealing with this again.”

Goodsen responded that if the design was completed, it may allow the town to be able to do the work “more quickly if something happens.”

Commissioner John Bonitz noted that if the plans were complete, it would it be considered a “shovel ready” project, potentially qualifying for other sources of funding.

“I think that we can expect that it’s going to blow out again,” Bonitz said. “I think it would be wise to consider [completing the design plans].”

Commissioner Michael Fiocco said he was concerned about the amount of time a design plan may hold up in terms of changing ordinances for bridges built in flood plains. Goodsen noted that small changes may be required, but did not anticipate the design expiring anytime soon.

“I think, John, you make a compelling argument,” Fiocco said to Bonitz.

The result was a 3-1 vote to complete the design contract. Farrell was the single “no” vote and Mayor Pro-Tem Pamela Baldwin was absent.

Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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