DOBSON — Upheaval at the engineering firm chosen by Surry County to design the Interstates Sewer Project has placed uncertainty on when shovels will go in the ground, County Manager Chris Knopf told the board of commissioners Tuesday night.
The issue is when design and permitting can be completed on the $4.5 million combined gravity and force-main system.
“There are a number of moving pieces at this point,” Knopf told the board, noting that following Mount Airy’s agreement to contribute $1 million to the project the city requested information that is yet to be received.
Knopf said the city asked for information including the time frame available to use grant monies allocated for the project and permitting and designs for the combined system.
“We have drawings for the forced main option, but the technical work hasn’t been completed on the gravity portion,” he said.
The problem, according to the county manager, is that there appears to be a break-up under way at Hobbs Upchurch Associates, the Southern Pines-based engineering firm.
“After receiving the proposal (from Mount Airy), I was notified that a large number of employees — including the county’s engineer for the past four years — were leaving the firm as well as the grant administration team we’ve been working with,” he said.
The grant administrators left the firm last Friday, and Knopf said this Friday is the last day the engineers will be with the firm.
According to the county manager, shortly after receiving the drawings for the forced main system, “all this stuff with the engineering firm happened.”
Which has placed the county in a bit of a pickle, he noted.
“It’s unclear to me at this time if the engineering firm will have the capacity to continue with this project,” he said.
Knopf said he has asked whether they will be able to continue, but at this point he hasn’t heard back from the firm.
“I did receive a voice message from (former State Senator Fred) Hobbs stating that he can continue with the project, but we haven’t received any response to our questions about the capacity and whether we can move forward,” he said. “We’re at a critical point in our project and we don’t know whether they can continue.”
While he “recognizes that they’re going through a transition,” Knopf said the information he’s requested is critical to planning the county’s next move.
“It’s information we need,” he said. “We have to determine what we’re going to do from this point forward.
Without the engineering information, Knopf said the county is in a bit of a standstill on the project.
“Two weeks ago, I was hoping that we’d know by this point what our plan is and what it’s going to cost us to engineer the project,” he said. “I’m still hopeful that we can have this information in hand by our next meeting, but at this point we’re starting to look at contingencies.”
But that doesn’t mean the county has given up on the project.
“We’re going to do everything we can to stay on the timeline the board wants us on, but a lot of this is outside our control,” he said. “We’re at the mercy of receiving feedback from our existing engineering firm.”
Knopf said one option is to go to another engineering firm, but in order to do that the new firm will have to get access to documents from Hobbs Upchurch.
“In order for another firm to develop a proposal, they need to be able to look at plans already in place,” he said. “They can’t formulate any type of estimate until they receive the plans and review them.”
And with the board wanting to move forward as quickly as possible, the frustration is mounting.
“If you look at all the things that have to happen to put this out to bid, everything came together with the exception of the chaos at the engineering firm,” he said. “But we’re working on backup options and will bring it to the board’s attention when we have it so they can proceed.”’
And the uncertainty could delay even further a project that has been more than a decade in the planning stages.
“We need to get the engineering work done, designed and permitted,” Knopf said. “That’s a five-month time frame. Then there’s another month to go to bid.
“If everything had lined up last night we’d be looking at a minimum of six months before shovels are in the ground, but at this point today, I can’t tell you the timeline because of the uncertainty with our engineering prospects.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.