24-inch mishap jeopardizes a $7M West Side project

Larry Barker

It’s a case study in how not to build a public works project. When it comes to botched construction, ground zero is Albuquerque’s West Side, home to one of the biggest public works screw-ups in the city.

“I’d say it’s a pretty big blunder,” says Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Quality Authority Chief Operating Officer John Stomp.

“It’s been devastating,” says Albuquerque businessman Van Barber.

Albuquerque resident Yolanda Sandoval-Montoya says, “I’m more than angry. I’m fed up. I want to cry.”

The ‘West Side Yucca Sewer Interceptor’ is a publicly financed $7,160,000 construction project designed to replace a section of Albuquerque’s aging and outdated sewer system. When complete, the project will bring a state of the art sewer line to thousands of people living in neighborhoods near West Central Avenue.

An Albuquerque construction firm called AUI, Inc. was awarded the lucrative contract. Beginning in November 2016 residential streets were closed, the pavement was bulldozed, and a mile long line of 42-inch sewer pipes were laid in 30-foot deep trenches on a route weaving through Albuquerque’s west side.

AUI excavated, scraped, bulldozed, graded, surveyed, measured, paved and repaved for more than a year. But just as the yearlong construction project was wrapping up, AUI dropped a bombshell. There had been a mistake: a 24-inch oversight. Forty percent of the freshly built sewer line will have to be ripped out and re-installed.

“My initial response was, this is not good,” says the Water Utility Authority’s John Stomp. “Honestly it’s embarrassing for us and for the contractor to go out there and say this is wrong, we have to redo it again,” Stomp says.

For sewer systems to work properly they must be installed at a specific depth and slope. However, due to a surveying error, major segments of the West Side Sewer Project were mislaid by as much as two feet.

“Maybe an inch, maybe a tenth or something like that would be acceptable. But being two feet off is clearly a major problem,” says Stomp. “For sewer line projects like this to miss by two feet … I haven’t seen anything like this before. And I have been doing this a long time. I’ve watched a lot of sewers, storm sewers, water line pipes going in and I can’t say that I’ve seen something like this,” according to John Stomp whose career in water resources spans 30 years.

Because AUI botched the job, the Albuquerque based construction company is on the hook for the repairs which will cost the firm about $1 million.

“About half of the job they did correct and the other half they’re going to have to redo,” Stomp said. “They have to go back out there and cut the pavement again, remove the sewer and relocate the sewer in the right elevation. They’re going to tear all the work out that they put in and re-lay the sewer,” Stomp says.

The construction errors will set back completion of the project by about eight months to September 2018.

“It’s been tough on me,” says West Central Ave. businessman Van Barber. “I’ve got neighbors that have their homes for sale. They can’t sell their homes. Some of these are rental properties. They can’t rent their properties. And it’s just been a burden for the whole community,” Barber says.

Yolanda Sandoval-Montoya lives in the construction zone. She says the disruptions to daily life over the last year have been unbearable. For example, when the construction crew dug a 30-foot trench at the end of her driveway Yolanda and her family was forced to walk two blocks or use a shuttle bus to come and go from their home.

“We’re tired of it,” Sandoval-Montoya says. “They’ve invaded us long enough and now to find out that they’re going to be here longer because they made a mistake? Get it done right the first time and leave us alone,” Sandoval-Montoya said.

So how does AUI explain its $1 million fumble? Well, they don’t. AUI President Darrin Howells declined to be interviewed. Instead, the construction firm sent a written statement that provided no excuses, no explanations and no apologies.

“This is a good lesson for us to make sure that when we have projects of this magnitude that we should be checking their work more frequently,” says John Stomp.

READ Statement from AUI »Photos: Maps of pipe work on West Central

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