Fixing Moab’s vital public services will require years of spending

Critical investments cost far outweighs total city budget

Half of Moab’s sewer piping is concrete, a material that Moab’s public works director said is inappropriate for the area. Cracking, such as what is shown here, commonly affects runs of piping segments at a time. Photo courtesy of the City of Moab

This accompanying story describes the city’s plan to tackle the large infrastructure investment challenge it faces.

The City of Moab faces a need for major upgrades to its aging infrastructure, much that is at least 50 years old and reaching the end of its useful life. According to city staff, the cost of these critical fixes and upgrades far outweighs Moab’s existing annual budget, let alone its annual spending on capital investments in recent years.

The “severe and critical” infrastructure needs that are facing Moab, according to City of Moab Public Works Director Oscar Antillon, will be costly to address, totaling more than $33 million. For comparison, Moab’s budgeted revenue for the 2020 fiscal year, meaning its total income including borrowing, taxes, fees for services and more, is $28.5 million.

City Engineer Chuck Williams estimates a higher sum of $74 million, since his evaluation includes facilities and services not evaluated by Antillon.

Comparing the infrastructure cost to overall revenue is not, however, the most useful comparison. The majority of the city’s spending is not on infrastructure, but rather on the wages it pays to city staff and officials.

A better comparison for Williams’ $74 million figure is to the amount of money the city is already spending on capital projects, which primarily involve construction and renovation of public properties. This figure for the 2020 budget is budgeted to be $9.3 million, which is roughly an eighth of Williams’ figure.

The capital projects fund this year is primarily going toward one project: A new parking garage near Main Street. This project is being funded in its entirety by the Utah Department of Transportation, which recently granted money to Moab and other tourism centers in the state to alleviate the impacts of increasing visitation.

In terms of budgeting, the parking garage is a major win for Moab. Although the city will pick up the cost of maintenance for the new facility, the high up-front cost of construction was covered fully by an external source, and officials hope to have a similar state of affairs when it goes to fund other local infrastructure projects.

This will take years

Antillon’s $33 million estimate, although a far cry from the city’s annual spending on infrastructure over recent years, is on the low end of what the city will need to spend over the coming years to maintain its current level of services.

Antillon’s estimate only includes improvements to storm water, sewer and culinary water services, essentially the cost of just replacing and improving the city’s pipes and roads. The city, however, also has buildings, parks and other public facilities to build, rebuild and maintain.

For a more holistic look at what capital improvements will cost taxpayers, consider Williams’ $73.6 million estimate of what critical capital improvements will cost citywide. This number includes services evaluated by Antillon and is based on the city’s master plan for capital improvements.

As City Manager, Joel Linares emphasized during a meeting with the city council that these capital investments can’t all happen at once. Cost alone would be a significant barrier, but Moab also lacks an ample labor force to take on multiple major projects simultaneously. According to Linares, it will take years to bring the city’s infrastructure up to date.

“There is no way we can dig our way out of this anytime soon,” Linares said.

Who is to blame?

Roads and pipes don’t last forever, and Moab’s sewer lines are a prime example of this. City workers who repair and replace cement sewer piping regularly find segments of broken pipes adjacent to multiple other segments that are also cracked, but the breakages do not become apparent until the lines are uncovered.

Aging infrastructure, and roads in particular, requires regular maintenance. A study by Utah State University cited by Antillon in his presentation showed that infrastructure that does not get regular maintenance reaches the end of its useful life sooner.

One might look to previous city councils that left current officials to pick up the reins on investing in and repairing the city’s aging infrastructure, to atone for the high cost of the city’s upcoming infrastructure bills. However, Linares said during a recent meeting with the city council that he did not want to cast blame on previous elected officials.

Linares said that past officials, when they were in office, likely saw on the horizon a need for upgrades and improvements to Moab’s infrastructure. But the day for them to fully take care of the issues did not come when they were still in office. By his account, the issue may never have been this bad for them.

Regardless of who is to blame, “Today,” Linares said, “is the day to replace the infrastructure.”