How infrastructure money could finally solve Cahokia Heights’ flooding and sewage problems
This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
A Metro East community beleaguered for more than 40 years by flooding and sewage has struggled to secure money to fix millions of dollars in problems. But elected officials say the new federal infrastructure deal should pay for repairs.
Nonstop sewage and flooding issues caused by decades of neglect have affected residents of Cahokia Heights, the city formed by the merger of Alorton, Centreville and Cahokia.
Cahokia Heights plans to use $2.8 million in COVID-19 relief money for repairs, but there’s $38 million worth of sewer, water and road work to be done, particularly in the northern section formerly known as Centreville.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth said the rest of the money needed is in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal signed into law earlier this month by President Joe Biden.
The senator said she had places like Cahokia Heights in mind when she wrote the water and wastewater infrastructure portion of the bill.
“We set up a whole system where there’s money carved out specifically for smaller communities,” Duckworth said. “It’s a new tranche of money with the Bipartisan Infrastructure deal that is going to really jump-start the efforts and they’ll be well on their way to getting their problems solved.”
Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said the federal money “is a huge opportunity for financially stressed communities like Cahokia Heights.”
“I’m not quite jumping for joy right now because we still have to be one of the cities that is awarded,” McCall said. “However, this is what government is about. Government is about helping people when they need help.”
A group of concerned residents called Centreville Citizens for Change is hopeful the money “will bring about more significant changes,” said Nicole Nelson, a lawyer representing the residents. But they have been skeptical of state and federal dollars and if they’ll be used effectively by local officials.
McCall said he would include members of the group in a steering committee on how to use the money.
“Those citizens deserve to not have faith in their government because government has let those people down,” McCall said. “Not just local, but state, county, federal, all of government was letting those people down for so long. We have to win these citizens’ trust back.”
Nelson said the group is awaiting details on how they will be involved.
Residents have been disappointed before. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, denied a $22 million grant for Cahokia Heights earlier this year.
Duckworth said money from the infrastructure plan is guaranteed.
“The money is set aside so they’re not competing against an O’Fallon, they’re not competing against St. Louis,” Duckworth said.
Using COVID-19 relief money, crews have already started working on pump stations, and Cahokia Heights will continue to see money come through this year and next, Duckworth said. But local elected officials will have to be ready to move quickly.
“There’s a pot of money and you better be ready to apply for them so you’re first in line to get this grant funding,” Duckworth said.
The state will handle applications for and allocate the federal infrastructure money. McCall said he expects Cahokia Heights will be able to apply in spring 2022.
The infrastructure deal includes the following changes:
- Increases funding for water projects and flexibility in how money can be used, such as for loan forgiveness
- Allows nonprofit organizations to help communities apply for assistance and plan projects
- Reduces cost-sharing requirements for federal grants, lowering the portion of a project communities have to pay for
- Provides easier access to existing grants for small towns such as Cahokia Heights
Residents say they also have problems with their drinking water.
Illinois American Water provides drinking water to Cahokia Heights, and plans to invest $3.1 million in the Centreville area of Cahokia Heights through next year to replace pipes, pumps, water mains and fire hydrants, according to company spokesman Terry Mackin.
Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat , a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.