$35M Route 6 project is in Westport voters' hands

Proponents plan education campaign over next seven weeks

By Ted Hayes
Posted 2/16/24

They have the Board of Selectmen’s blessing. Now comes the work — selling a $35 million sewer and water project to voters with less than two months to go before the election.

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$35M Route 6 project is in Westport voters' hands

Proponents plan education campaign over next seven weeks


They have the Board of Selectmen’s blessing. Now comes the work — selling a $35 million sewer and water project to voters with less than two months to go before the election.

Select board members on Monday evening agreed to place a long-proposed Route 6 water and sewer project on the Tuesday, April 9 ballot, and also approved a request to add it to the warrant for Town Meeting in May. The two votes, both of which need to pass to authorize the town to borrow up to $35 million to complete the project, were recommended by the Infrastructure Oversight Committee (IOC), which has been designing and overseeing the project for several years.

Though such projects usually go before Town Meeting first, and then to voters in a regular or special election, IOC secretary Maury May said Monday night that the committee is doing things a bit differently as members want to get the project rolling sooner rather than later. Had the committee held the first vote on the matter at Town Meeting, voters would not have been able to give it a second look at the polls until at least July or November.

“We do want to speed up the process here," he said, as the first of the project's three phases is ready to go to out to bid.

Broken into three contracts estimated to cost approximately $8 million, $15 million and $8 million, respectively, the project would cost approximately $31 million, with an extra $4 million contingency built in. 

When completed, the project's three phases  would bring a water and sewer “trunk” line onto Route 6 from the Fall River line, running it as far east as the Dartmouth line. A series of new or improved pump stations would be built along the way, eventually resulting in much improved water service and sewer where none is currently available.

As the project is built out, residents and commercial property owners currently underserved with poor water service, and no sewer, would have the opportunity to tie into the system as it advances in the coming years.

Town leaders believe the project will have a huge impact on business in the north end, bringing in more development and increased tax revenue, while helping underserved residents and eliminating one of the major sources of pollution in South Watuppa Pond and the Westport River.


Selling the project?

Educating the public on the project's merits is now officials' top priority as time before the April election passes.

Initially, IOC members considered asking for voter approval of only the first of the project's three contracts, planning then to go back before voters next year and the year after to ask for the approval of the second and third phases.

But over the past month, members said, they became convinced that it would be easier and more efficient to go after all the money at once. Doing so, among other things, would demonstrate to state and federal officials that Westport is putting its money where its mouth is, they reasoned, and that could help the project obtain crucial grants, low interest loans and other pools of funding to pay for the project apart from local borrowing.

IOC members, including select board member Manuel Soares, said they are confident that they'll be able to sell the project to the public over the next seven weeks, despite the failure of a $3 million override at the polls last year, and a public largely uneducated about the project.

"If the $35 million gets shot down ... that doesn't stop the sewer project," Soares said. "It's approved, it's permitted, we have a notice of intent — we'll chase the funds wherever we (can find) them. It's happening, and it's not going to take 30 years."

But at least one select board member questioned IOC board members' optimism that the project will happen if the voters reject it, and wondered aloud whether that sends the right message to voters:

"There's no way to pay for this sewer project unless we get a debt exclusion," BOS member Shana Shufelt said. "You cannot construct this line without money, so I think you're actually doing a disservice to your project by suggesting that you don't need this to pass. Because if it doesn't pass, you're going to have to be chasing these grants and this loan money until you get enough to cobble along."

Board members' optimism that the project will get done one way or another "makes it sound like the voters can feel free to vote 'No' and it will still happen," she said. "I don't think we're going to convince (the voters) by telling them they don't need to pass it."

Even if it fails at the April election, committee and board member said, the project isn't dead. It will still be brought to voters at Town Meeting and, depending on what happens there, will then go before voters again at the next public forum.

"Even if it fails (in April) we should keep it on the warrant, IOC member Bob Daylor said.


The benefits

Though she said she wholeheartedly supports the project, Shufelt said that in conversations with constituents familiar with the project, many have questioned the cost vs the benefits to Westport as a whole. While she said it is clear to those versed on the project that it will benefit Westport, she said proponents should work to relay to voters how the project will impact them, even if they live on the other side of town.

May said he agrees, but said quantifiable data on economic and environmental impacts is scarce — "the only hard number we have is from a 2018 study (that) came up with about $420,000 of tax benefits from the development of sewer" in the area covered by the first $8 million contract.

Anecdotally, IOC members said in recent public meetings that they have heard from many business and land owners who would develop or improve their properties if water and sewer came to them, and residential property values would also rise if they were improved.

And on a larger scale, Soares said, everyone in Westport would benefit from an ecological perspective.

"The major benefit for the whole town would be the environmental impact," he said of the impact on the town's waterways. "That will help everyone."

IOC members agreed that with the clock ticking, it's time they started educating voters on how they'll benefit.

"There are a lot of parts to this, so it's going to take some explaining," Daylor said. "But I support it — at the end of the day it's up to voters. We're giving them the opportunity."

"We really need to get the education going," Soares said. If that's done, "I think we'll be successful."

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