Last week, residents of Dunbar/Spring gathered for their monthly neighborhood meeting, one of the first since the Road Runner broke news that bids for the massive Downtown Links project came in way over estimates.
Though it wasn’t going to be an easy audience, the Tucson Department of Transportation’s Sam Credio and the RTA’s Farhad Moghimi were on hand to field questions from neighbors anxious about what that turn of events means for the area.
As readers of the column know, Dunbar denizens’ biggest concern is the fate of the so-called deck plaza, a charming park on top of the Union Pacific Railroad underpass that would maintain pedestrian and bike access to downtown at Ninth Avenue, as well as other bike and pedestrian amenities. Officials are currently studying why the bids came in so high and ways to bring those costs down to available funding.
Moghimi and Credio struck a reassuring tone.
“What happens if you can’t get the project to the estimate?” resident and association treasurer Sky Jacobs asked.
“We’re not even concerned with that,” Credio responded. “We’re confident that we’re going to make it happen.”
“Without changing anything large, in terms of things that we can see?” Jacobs pressed.
“Sure. We’ve kind of talked around it a lot tonight, but the city is dedicated to this project being built with the deck plaza included as a part of the contract’s elements,” Credio said. “That’s our goal, is to build this project the way that we all envisioned it being built.”
“We’re supportive of the project as a whole,” Farhad said, when asked by neighborhood association President Karen Greene what the RTA’s position was on the plaza and other pedestrian features. “We’re there to support (the city) to make sure we get it done. So the ultimate goal is to make sure that we can bring that cost differential down to something that is more manageable.”
If substantial changes are necessary to accomplish that, Credio told his concerned audience there would be a transparent public process so that “everybody is kept in the loop.”
Where Farhad drew a hard line, however, was on the suggestion that funding for other RTA projects be diverted to ensure delivery of Downtown Links. Doing so would be a “violation of the promise that was made to the voters,” he said.
Emails and other materials recently obtained by the Road Runner through records requests add additional detail to what led to the current situation.
Requests from the Road Runner for a detailed engineer’s estimate and bid tabulations were denied because city officials felt releasing them would compromise the competitiveness of any future bid. However, one of the emails included a summary of some of the areas with the largest bid-estimate variances.
Low bidder Granite Construction’s bids for the retaining walls — mostly along the railroad underpass — were $3.3 million over estimates, and mobilization was $3 million over. Structural concrete, used in the underpass, deck plaza and Sixth Avenue overpass, was $2.6 million, according to a March 23 email from a transportation department employee.
Sizable overages were also seen in the drilled shafts under the underpass — $1.8M — and construction related to the railroad — $ 1.4 million.
“If you look at retaining walls, structural concrete, reinforced concrete box culverts, what do they all have in common?” Credio asked. “They have concrete and they have steel. As we talked about, those prices are up across the board.”
City and RTA officials have placed a lot of hope in increasing clarity and reducing risk in the solicitation as a good way to bring down project costs.
In an April 2 email summarizing a recent RTA task force meeting, interim transportation Director Robin Raine wrote that the task force “doesn’t think the Deck Plaza should be reimbursed by RTA and that the City put in too much landscape.”
“They asked me how the city is going to fix the problem since (the RTA’s Jim DeGrood) said per the (intergovernmental agreement), additional cost is the city’s responsibility,” she went on.
“I said that we had depended on the regional funds to make up any differences and that since we don’t have funding, we’d probably have to re-design and re-advertise.”
“DeGrood caught me after the meeting and suggested that we simply remove the retaining walls in favor of slope paving and remove the deck plaza and that we could do this without re-advertising ....Help!” the email concluded.
The Road Runner reached out to DeGrood to ask if he had been suggesting stripping the deck plaza without a public process. In an email, he said those suggestions were made, along with a number of others, with the goal of reducing the project’s cost so that it could be built. He added that it was “never my goal to pre-empt process.”
“We’re trying to find a way to make it happen,” he later told the Road Runner. “We’re not trying to gig the neighborhood.”
That being said, he suggested there are number of ways to reduce the cost of the deck plaza and other elements that still “achieve what the neighborhood is desirous of.” He also noted that the deck park is “beyond what was promised to the voters” on the RTA ballot in 2006.
And if the bids still come in over estimates? DeGrood pointed to the RTA board’s 2013 decision to broaden the scope of Downtown Links to include the deck plaza. However, that was done with the understanding that “the City of Tucson will be responsible for any additional funding needed should the project ultimately cost more than currently projected,” according to meeting materials.
As City Manager Michael Ortega sees it, amenities like the plaza that were added to Downtown Links through a lengthy — and often contentious — public process need to be “considered as a part of this project.”
Asked if it would be the city’s responsibility to cover any overage that remains once the project is rebid, Ortega said it is his understanding “that this is a joint problem of the RTA, meaning all of the partners including the city.”
“I don’t think it’s an assumption on my part that they’re funding it or I’m funding it,” he added. “It’s really my assumption, we’re going to work together on the delivery of the project.”
As to the prospects that something like Downtown Links as currently envisioned will get built, Ortega said he’s “very optimistic.”
DOWN THE ROAD
On Tuesday, crews will begin milling and repaving Country Club Road from Fort Lowell Road to just north of Prince Road. The work will take place in shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is expected to wrap up Friday.
During work hours only, there will be no southbound travel on that stretch of Country Club . Flaggers will be on hand to direct motorists to detours.
Also on Tuesday, crews will be lowering manhole and water valve covers on Tanque Verde Road from Sabino Canyon Road to Kolb/Grant roads. The single day of work will last from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Milling and repaving work will start next week.