The numbers game: Olver says transfer station is Orange County's best bet | News

The numbers game: Olver says transfer station is Orange County's best bet

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In a report delivered to the Orange County Solid Waste Advisory Board (SWAB) Tuesday night, Charlotte-based consultants Olver, Inc. said that building and operating a waste transfer station would be cheaper than paying a private company to haul the county's trash to a landfill in another county. (The county's municipal solid waste landfill is set to close in 2011.) As mentioned here previously, Olver is projecting the station will cost $55 million over the course of 20 years--roughly $7 to $9 million less than paying private vendors to haul trash over the same time period. The projected cost for a transfer station includes a $4.8 million budget for land purchase, planning and construction-- a lower figure than originally mentioned. Olver, which specializes in developing waste facilities, spread these costs out over 20 years, and then compared overall annual figures to private-vendor options.

The results--which showed lower costs for a transfer station, compared to private-vendor options, for each of the next 20 years (with the exception of one year in which hauling waste to Durham's municipal transfer station would be cheaper)--were puzzling to Orange County Commissioner Steve Yuhasz, who sat in on the meeting. (View the summary, and background materials.)

"I’m not sure that graph answers my question," he said to Olver representative James Reynolds, referring to the Board of County Commissioners' original request to analyze a "parallel track" of, among other options, temporarily using private vendors. "That’s factoring in, I think, the cost of building the transfer station. What I’m saying is, if we don’t build the transfer station—it seems to me that those two lines cross further out."

One reason the transfer-station costs remained relatively low was Olver's estimate for the price of building the facility--a source of speculation for months. Olver achieved the figure of $4.8 million, in part, by recommending the county purchase just 25 acres, at $15,000 an acre, for a total of $375,000 in land purchase costs. However, that estimate is at odds with the proposed sites' property owners. In a letter to the county, Dennis Howell insisted on selling all 143 acres of one site, for no less than $3 million. The Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA), which owns the second site, has made clear it does not wish to sell.

Bonnie Hauser, a member of Orange County Voice, an advocacy group opposed to the proposed sites, challenged Reynolds on his cost estimates: "So if we wrote a check for a $5 million fixed price, we would be good?" she said.

"Would I guarantee it? No," Reynolds said.

Other numbers raised eyebrows, including the distance Olver calculated from the transfer-station sites to the average Chapel Hill collection point (8 miles), shorter than its projected distance to Carrboro (8.7 miles). In fact, the proposed sites, which are along N.C. Hwy 54 in southwestern Orange County, are 8 miles west of Carrboro, and 11 miles west of Chapel Hill (see map below):

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When asked why Olver's report did not optimize routes--to, say, locate waste operations to the east, if garbage is being taken to Durham or RTP--Reynolds replied:

Routing assessments, and routing efficiencies are very complicated, and it’s really beyond the scope of this analysis. It’s not as easy to say if you’re going to the east, Durham or Wake, that you would end up on the east side of town. You can end up closer to your destination by a mile or two, but the efficiency of the route is lost, because you have to make more left turns. That’s not a driver that would flip any of these graphs to make any one a lot more efficient than the other.

Also included in the report were "intangible" reasons why a county-operated transfer station would be better, including an increased "flexibility to utilize alternative long-term disposal options." However, opponents to the transfer station have argued that building a multi-million dollar facility would lock the county into a long-term system of exporting waste to another county's landfill. Contracting with private vendors, meanwhile, could be done on a short-term basis, while alternative options are explored.

While addressing the intangibles, Reynolds said that "bad things will happen" if truck drivers are on the road longer, claiming that breakdowns, accidents and road work delays were more likely to occur. "It's a no-brainer," he said, of choosing the transfer stations on N.C. Highway 54. The only factor in which private haulers scored higher points was in the "school buses" category, since the N.C. 54 sites would require garbage trucks to travel some of the same routes as buses.

Despite Durham's municipal transfer-station facility consisting of one-third of its report, Olver's Bob Sallach said that, "We want to make clear that the Durham option has some issues as far as capacity," and would effectively be unavailable by the time Orange County's landfill closes.

As for the location of the proposed transfer-station--which has yet to be decided, after a 16-month process coordinated by Olver--Reynolds argued the county should not return to the drawing board:

The issue for us is not whether 54 is a good site or not. The county has gone through an elaborate process that got you there. You don’t want to just abandon that totally and say, ‘You’ve got people who don’t like to see that site there, so you’ve got to find the perfect site.’ There’s no such thing.

OTHER NOTES:

-Chris Heaney, a postdoctoral fellow in UNC's Department of Epidemiology, asked Orange County Solid Waste Management Director Gayle Wilson if the Eubanks Road landfill site would be considered for a temporary transfer-station site, before a Bingham Township Facility is built. Wilson said that's "possible," but would not reveal the county's contingency plan, until it is made public in advance of the commissioners' April 21 meeting.

In response, Yuhasz said: "I can’t imagine any situation where the [Board of County Commissioners] would approve even a contingency plan on the Eubanks site. That may be presented as an alternative, but it's unlikely to gain much traction."

-The N&O reports today that "Orange gives up on waste transfer site," referring to the OWASA property. The article refers to a failed attempt, by Wilson, to float the idea of a "land swap" through OWASA, but falsely implies the OWASA site is off the table. At a recent meeting, OWASA agreed to consider the "concept" of a land swap, but in a March 12 letter to commissioners, OWASA Executive Director Ed Kerwin writes:

In the absence of any particular proposal for a land-swap, the Board is not interested in discussing the matter further.

In an interview, Wilson said, "We interpreted that to mean, we’re not interested, so [the county hasn't] spent any more time pursuing [a land swap]." In an e-mail response to the N&O story, however, Wilson wrote:

I have not been informed that the BOCC has formally eliminated the OWASA candidate site from further consideration.

-Olver, and Wilson's Solid Waste Management staff, will present several reports at an April 21 Board of County Comissioners meeting, to be held at 7 pm at 2510 Homestead Road. Meanawhile, SWAB will meet again on Thursday, April 2, to continue its discussion with Olver. That meeting will be held at 7 pm, at 1207 Eubanks Road.

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