Fixing up the current transfer station is not the cheapest option | Guest Column

By Ronald L. Shreve

Minimally fixing up the current transfer station has been widely advocated, because at first glance it appears to be obviously the cheapest option. In fact, it would be wasting money. To see why requires delving a bit deeper. There is another option that is not only cheaper but also better.

Full facility. Currently, the only available cost estimates by a qualified engineer are for a full facility. They are based on professional experience, without detailed site investigations or rigorous cost analyses.

Qualified engineer’s cost estimates for full facility, in millions of dollars:

— Buildings, roads, and scales: Sutton Road site, 2.0-3.0; Beaverton Valley Road site, 2.0-3.0.

— Excavation, fill, and site preparation: Sutton Road site, 1.3-1.9; Beaverton Valley Road site, 0.6-0.8.

— Stormwater detention pond: Sutton Road site, 0.3-0.5; Beaverton Valley Road site, none.

— Composting and/or construction and demolition debris processing pads: Sutton Road site, 1.6-1.8; Beaverton Valley Road site, 1.6-1.8.

— Total cost of full facility: Sutton Road site, 5.2-7.2; Beaverton Valley Road site, 4.2-5.6.

— Total cost of basic facility: Sutton Road site, 3.6-5.4; Beaverton Valley Road site, 2.6-3.8.

( From the Supplemental Alternatives Analysis prepared for the County)

Though these estimates take into account the far greater cost of excavation, fill, and site preparation on the steep, rocky, confined Sutton Road site, they disregard several other potentially costly problems at that site. These problems include:

(1) Buying or leasing from the town (whereas the county already owns the entire Beaverton Valley Road site).

(2) Keeping the existing facility open for business during construction.

(3) Leaving undisturbed the monitoring wells downhill from the old landfill, and

(4) Dealing with known and probable buried trash and other refuse outside the old landfill.

Basic facility. The composting and/or construction and demolition debris processing pads are for waste-stream reduction mandated by the county’s Solid-Waste Management Plan. Inasmuch as commercial firms on San Juan Island currently carry out part of this function, the county could for the present build a basic facility without the pads.

Opting for a basic facility would reduce the immediate cost by $1.6 million to $1.8 million at both sites.

Minimalist (or bailing wire and duct tape) facility. Quite a few concerned citizens advocate muddling through as cheaply as possible with the current transfer station. Some, for example, mistakenly claim that “simply erecting a structure over the tipping site” would bring the facility into compliance with the law.

Doing anything whatever at the current facility will trigger having to comply with all applicable laws and regulations, not just the requirement for a roof over the tipping floor. At minimum, compliance requires:

(1) Adequately sealing and draining both the trash tipping floor and the floor under its semi-trailer receiving bin, which likely will require completely replacing them.

(2) Providing for proper collection and storage of contaminated garbage drippings and cleanup water from the trash tipping floor and receiving bin.

(3) Constructing a stormwater collection system and detention pond (which alone adds $0.3 million to $0.5 million to the cost, whereas the necessary pond already exists at the Beaverton Valley Road site), and

(4) Taking any other actions required by law.

The cost would be in addition to some of the other special costs at the site already mentioned.

Doing the minimum required for compliance at the Sutton Road site could easily cost as much as building a basic facility at the Beaverton Valley Road site.

Semi-minimalist facility. Additional important needs at the current transfer station are:

(1) Improving employee safety.

(2) Widening the tipping floors to match the receiving-bin length, and

(3) Providing pull-through rather than back-in bays for the receiving-bin semi-trailers.

A semi-minimalist facility would considerably reduce the present excessive risk of injury to employees and damage to vehicles and buildings, at relatively little additional expense.

Self-hauling vs. “curbside” pickup. Some advocates of a minimalist facility acknowledge the gross insufficiency of the available space on the current site by calling for mandatory pickup or its equivalent.

A few years ago, the county proposed mandatory pickup to reduce on-site traffic, but dropped the idea when a sizable majority voted against it at a public hearing in 2006, even though it was claimed to be less expensive and more convenient than self-hauling.

“Curbside” pickup in fact is neither less expensive nor more convenient for most self-haulers; and for some it is practically impossible.

Not less expensive. San Juan Sanitation charges $27.04 per month, including taxes, to collect two 32-gallon cans biweekly. Self-hauling the contents of the cans biweekly costs $22.24 if they weigh 40 pounds each. Inasmuch as self-hauled cans rarely weigh this much, very few self-haulers pay what “curbside” pickup costs.

Not more convenient. Early on collection day (or the previous night), people living up the numerous lanes and driveways not serviced by San Juan Sanitation have to cart their trash to the often distant pickup point in animal-proof trash cans that commonly do not fit into their vehicles. After the pickup, they have to make a second trip to retrieve the cans. And then they have to self-haul their recyclables to the transfer station anyway, or else discard them with the trash.

Self-haulers, on the other hand, simply take their trash and recyclables to the transfer station in plastic bags, which easily fit into most vehicles, and continue on to other business.

It is for good reason that so many islanders from all areas outside town are so vehemently opposed to being forced into “curbside” pickup.

Source of funds for facility. According to the Supplemental Alternatives Analysis, “a number of potential funding sources could help pay for all or a portion of a new transfer station on San Juan Island. At the federal level, some of these sources include a variety of grant and loan programs offered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some state funding sources include Ecology’s Coordinated Prevention Grant (CPG) and the state’s Public Works Trust Fund (PWTF).”

The taxes that fund these programs will be collected whether or not the xounty takes advantage of them.

Construction of a new full or basic facility would be eligible for these potential funding sources, whereas a minimalist or semi-minimalist fix-up almost certainly would not. Thus, whether the latter would in fact entail less burden on county taxpayers is open to serious question.

Below-standard entering sight distances at site entrances. The Traffic Analysis appended to the draft Environmental Impact Statement points out that at the proposed entrances to both the Sutton Road and the Beaverton Valley Road sites the entering sight distances in the direction away from town are only about 350 feet, whereas current roadway design standards require a minimum of 559 feet.

The analysis incorrectly gives 698 feet as the required minimum at the Beaverton Valley Road site entrance (because it mistakenly used the wrong speed limit) and therefore concludes that mitigation “would probably be prohibitively expensive,” because of the amount of excavation needed. With the correct distance, excavation is considerably reduced.

Moreover, by using the existing entrance to the site instead of the proposed one, it can be further reduced dramatically, because then oncoming traffic would be in the lane farthest from the obstructing embankment, instead of nearest.

Correcting the almost identical (and generally ignored) inadequacy in entering sight distance at either the current turnoff or the proposed new entrance to the Sutton Road site would be considerably more expensive than at the entrance to the Beaverton Valley Road site. This is because Roche Harbor Road there not only bends around a bedrock hill in the direction away from town (like the situation at the proposed Beaverton Valley Road site entrance), but also curves downward over it, thus requiring much more extensive excavation and roadway rebuilding.

Source of funds for off-site road work. The cost of this work, if any, almost certainly would come from the county roads budget. According to county documentation (2009 Prelim Revs, all County Funds) about 57 percent of the non-carryover funds in this budget in 2009 will derive from federal road grants and state motor vehicle fuel taxes, 38 percent from the property tax levy for roads, and the remaining 5 percent from a variety of minor sources.

County taxpayers will pay the same motor vehicle fuel taxes regardless of which option is chosen. Likewise, the property tax levy cannot be increased by more than 1 percent per year, nor can bonds be issued, without approval by the voters.

The most that can be said at this point is that the actual funds needed for off-site road work are virtually certain to be far less than the several million dollars some have proclaimed.

Importance of taking the long view. Most of the public discussion so far has assumed that minimizing short-term costs achieves lowest cost. But for long-term public projects like the transfer station “lowest cost” has to mean “lowest overall cost,” not “lowest short-term cost.” Otherwise, the present generation is simply saving money at the expense of the next.

With a minimalist or semi-minimalist facility very big future costs can almost certainly be anticipated. The absence of any expansion potential whatever at the Sutton Road site means that, as our population inevitably grows, a new facility will be needed far sooner than otherwise.

The county and its citizens will then be forced once again to go through the whole costly process of site selection and facility construction, but with the additional and possibly insurmountable difficulty of lack of suitable sites. And costs will surely be even higher then than now.

It is imperative that in deciding what to do about the transfer station we think, not in terms of the next few years, but in terms of the next several decades.

The bottom line. Minimally fixing up the current transfer station is not the cheapest option. Building a basic facility at the Beaverton Valley Road site instead would entail lower short-term cost, lower long-term cost, less complexity, many fewer chances for costly surprises, and far less adverse impact on the great majority of San Juan Island residents.

— Ron Shreve is research professor of oceanography at the University of Washington and emeritus professor of geology and Geophysics at UCLA. He lives in the Hillview Terrace neighborhood near the Sutton Road site.

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