Stormwater pipe work on Bennington Street/ Credit: Needham Observer

Summer on my block: The joy of waking up to birds chirping, a morning breeze coming through an open window, and the sound of metal scraping concrete shaking us — literally and figuratively — out of our slumber.

As Needham continues its water main replacement and stormwater mitigation efforts, an impressive number of large and small excavators, front end loaders, mini diggers and backhoes appeared on Bennington Street in late May and remain in residence. Years ago, my family of boys would have loved the action. But now I hear complaints about interrupted mornings of sleep.

I also hear more serious complaints from my neighbors. Since the beginning of the work, residents have had their irrigation systems damaged, internet cut, gas and water lines nicked, and one family had sewage overflow into their basement. There have been times when we were blocked in on both sides of the street with no way to drive out. 

To those of us who live here, the work appears Sisyphean — they dig a hole in the morning, fill it up in the afternoon, dig it again in the morning. We’ve been left wondering whether this whole project has gone awry.

Nope, not awry at all. According to Carys Lustig, director of the department of public works, this is all part and parcel of a project of this magnitude. 

“It’s a particularly complicated project,” said Lustig. “People talk about it like it’s no big deal. It’s a massively big deal.” She said people have very real concerns about flooding issues, which the town has taken steps to remediate, but they assume it’s a quick fix. “People think we can just rip up the whole town, but it’s really involved construction.” 

Part of the problem, Lustig explained, is the patchwork manner in which the underground network of pipes has been installed over many decades as well as the lack of one plan that lays everything all out clearly and accurately. With the varying ages of the infrastructure, there don’t appear to be adequate records of how everything “flows” together. 

Bennington Street is undergoing pipe replacement work./ Credit: Needham Observer

“There’s not one drawing of everything,” said Lustig. “New construction and old construction and how they tie into the roadway and how they tie into the town.” Part of the work on Bennington Street involves replacing the nearly 100-year-old water main as well as substituting the stormwater pipes with much larger cement pipes to handle the increased water from significant storms. With so many moving pieces and large swaths of pavement being torn apart and excavated, she is not surprised there has been some damage. 

Bennington Street is around the corner from one of the more significant flooding areas in town at the corner of Burnside and Concord streets. Since 2013, the town has been working to solve the problem and finally identified a spot on Cheney Street to discharge the excess water into a swale. 

Although residents have been understanding and patient, many of us were not aware of what the project would entail. One resident — who happens to be my husband — said it would have been nice to know there was a very real possibility that a gas line might be hit, putting the entire street at risk. Others said they had no idea there would be so many large vehicles parked up and down the street for so many weeks. 

Lustig admitted that communication with residents as to the duration and nature of the project could and should have been more robust, and it is something the town will be working to improve going forward. 

One reason residents may be shocked by the large-scale nature of this project is that general drainage projects are not huge. But, said Lustig, drainage conveyance has not been done in the area for a very long time. “They’re building a very large trench, it requires a road to shut down and a large staging area; it’s loud.” 

So while those of us living in the literal trenches may feel unduly inconvenienced, the project appears to be on track and on budget so far, with certain delays and accidents accounted for in the planning. And disruptive as this work and apparent setbacks may be to residents, those affected said the response to fix each issue has been swift, and workers apologetic. 

As the stormwater mitigation project moves forward, and maybe comes to your street, it is important to remember that many residents begged the town to respond to the now regular flooding concerns. This will be a long-term fix that will prevent extensive damage to homes and businesses across Needham. So I’ll deal with my cranky teens at dawn, knowing we are taking one for the team.   

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