Politics & Government

Contractors promise cost of new water plant will not top $508 million

Wichita Water Partners told the city Friday that it will design and build Wichita’s new water treatment plant for $508.1 million — or less.

That’s lower than the $524 million projected by the city in 2016, but significantly higher than the public was led to believe during previous discussions about the project.

Cost savings was one of the City Council’s justifications for changing the selection criteria that ultimately led to the project being awarded to Wichita Water Partners instead of Jacobs Engineering, a more experienced team picked unanimously by a selection committee.

The $524 million estimate included operating the plant for two to five years after it was finished. That portion of the project was dropped late last year when the City Council approved changing the criteria for the project.

Ron Coker, project executive for Burns & McDonnell, which is part of the Wichita Water Partners’ team, told the City Council in November that dropping operations could save the city up to $80 million. At that same meeting, Mayor Jeff Longwell said putting the project back out for bid rather than awarding it to Jacobs could save another $75 million.

Those $155 million in savings weren’t reflected in the price estimate provided by Coker on Friday during a steering committee meeting updating the public on the project.

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City Council members Brandon Johnson and Bryan Frye, who are both on the steering committee, said they were pleased with Wichita Water Partners’ presentation. Besides offering an estimated price, Wichita Water Partners walked the public through its preliminary design of the plant.

“To me, it showed the citizens all of the redundancy in the new plant that we don’t have in our old plant,” Johnson said.

“Hopefully it inspires a lot of confidence in the community that the team that we’ve selected is capable of doing what we’ve asked them to do,” Frye said.

“I think the presentation was excellent. It should give a lot of comfort to the citizens that we’re on the right path.”

Wichita Water Partners and the water treatment plant project have been under heightened scrutiny after The Wichita Eagle reported that Mayor Jeff Longwell, who is up for election, steered the contract to Wichita Water Partners after having several meetings, dinners and golf outings with contractors on that team.

The water partners team was supposed to give a final cost estimate and a design for 30% of the water plant to the city on Oct. 4.

That has been extended to Dec. 18.

Coker said his team needed the extra time to discuss additional savings with the city — work that is continuing.

He said the city can save $20 million if it approves Wichita Water Partners’ plan to save on a distribution line from the new plant at 21st and Hoover to the existing pump station in Riverside. Instead of laying new pipe, Wichita Water Partners wants to convert an existing pipeline that now carries untreated raw water to a distribution line that would deliver treated water to the pumping station.

“If the city determines these are valuable opportunities and can be taken out of the project, that number ($508.1 million) then comes down,” Coker said.

Water rates will increase to pay for the new plant, but the city hasn’t determined by how much.

Coker said he will present an updated cost estimate to the city on Oct. 28. The city’s deadline to apply for a federal loan for the project is Oct. 30.

The extension also moved any final decision about the city’s contract with Wichita Water Partners to build the plant until after the November election, when a majority of the City Council will be up for election.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.