The sinkhole that opened up in Manassas Park and stranded about 400 residents Aug. 12 has already led to finger-pointing ahead of the city’s fall elections, with Mayor Jeanette Rishell’s challenger alleging neglect of the city’s roads and Rishell saying the city has been hamstrung by limited funds.
Nobody was hurt, but what ended with the road collapsing on Moseby Drive during a heavy downpour began nearly a decade earlier, when problems with the culvert first arose. According to Manassas Park Public Works Director Calvin O’Dell, the problems with corrugated metal culverts and their deterioration at the water line have become better understood in recent years, and they’ve fallen out of favor compared to sturdier concrete culvert.
O’Dell told InsideNoVa that public works had first been called out for an erosion issue with the culvert back in 2011. In investigating the problem, he said, the city realized temporary solutions weren’t going to cut it.
“It had become apparent that we needed to proceed with a full culvert replacement, and we weren’t just looking to repair what was there,” he said.
By 2015, the city applied for Virginia Department of Transportation funding to replace the culvert, but was turned down because it lacked matching funds from the city. In the next round of funding in 2017, VDOT accepted the city’s application, though the agreement for $1.5 million wasn’t finalized until the fall of 2018.
Still, there were problems with the initial replacement plan, and engineers settled on a different plan to line and stabilize the culvert which would allow water to flow more smoothly. That plan, however, would have required a crane in place for about six weeks, cutting off access to and from the Moseby Ridge subdivision.
“We still had to provide alternative access. So that’s exactly where we were, we had been meeting with lining companies to try to figure out if there was an alternative way to approach this to keep the crane off the roadway,” O’Dell said. “But logistically, when there's a one way in, one way out subdivision, we really didn't have any option available that wasn’t going to add a little bit of time and acquire the necessary easements and get alternative access in place.”
Michael Carrera, a former city councilperson and current mayoral candidate, says the city should have pursued a way to fund the project itself when it was first turned down by VDOT, possibly even requesting funding from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
But more broadly, he said the city’s bones haven’t been important to its current leadership. Instead, the city council has been focused on flashy development projects like the one agreed to in June that will bring new residential units and a new city hall to the downtown area.
“We have some of the worst roads in the state. We have grass growing in our roads throughout the city,” Carrera said. “It just hasn’t been a priority. The priority was to get a new city hall, roads haven’t been the priority.”
Rishell, who began as mayor in 2017 after four years on the city council, says the explanation for not replacing the culvert sooner is simple: the city has been in a weak financial position since before the Great Recession projects saddled it with mounting debt and plunged its credit rating.
For example, she told InsideNoVa, the city doesn’t have the money for a full-time staff member focused on transportation, and that without state assistance, the city couldn’t fund the culvert’s replacement on its own. And that, she says, is exactly why projects like the downtown development are so crucial — the idea being that new tax revenue will flow into city coffers as a result.
“Here again, the fiscal condition of the city does not permit us to hire for that position. So staffing requirements are one of those unmet needs that the city has to deal with. All of this underscores the need for our downtown development to be successful and to bring in the much needed revenue to meet all of our needs,” Rishell said. “In the end, the collapse of the culvert was what we feared most, and that is what happened.”
Rishell praised the city’s staff and first responders on their quick work following the collapse. Road access to the subdivision was restored in about 12 hours.
Another former councilperson, though, said the problem should have been addressed sooner by speeding up the planning process and getting work crews on the street earlier. According to Brian Leeper, who was on the council from 2010 to 2013, former Public Works Director Jay Johnson told the council that the culvert could collapse if it wasn’t replaced.
“A proactive approach to dealing with it would have prevented what happened there, that’s the bottom line,” Leeper said. “Somebody dropped the ball,”
City Manager Laszlo Palko said that if the city were to dip into NVTA funds for the project, it would have come at the expense of other necessary transportation improvements.
“If we had been a wealthier community or weren’t denied [in 2015] … this would have been resolved,” Palko said. “If we were just to do one transportation project and other areas failed, then we’d get criticized for not addressing those other transportation issues.”
And to the idea that the city’s leadership knew the culvert could fail but moved too slowly, Palko said the only people talking about the issue before the collapse were on city staff. Nobody from the outside had raised concerns since he took over as city manager in 2017.
“What do you mean by ‘aware?’ If Mr. Leeper or other former council people who may be running for office right now said [we were] ‘aware,’ what do they mean by aware?” Palko said. “If they believed it was in imminent threat of collapse, where’s their moral judgment in not letting people know that it was in imminent danger of collapse?”