Smaller project, bigger budget, approved for RAD

MAKE WAY: Asheville City Council approved a widened "multi-use path" along the stretch of Lyman Street between Amboy Road and the former site of 12 Bones Smokehouse. The change from a 10-foot-wide greenway to a 16-foot-wide path was in response to scaled-back plans that eliminated a protected bike lane along the stretch. Former Council member Marc Hunt suggested the revision. Image courtesy of Marc Hunt
MAKE WAY: Asheville City Council approved a widened "multi-use path" along the stretch of Lyman Street between Amboy Road and the former site of 12 Bones Smokehouse. The change from a 10-foot-wide greenway to a 16-foot-wide path was in response to scaled-back plans that eliminated a protected bike lane along the stretch. Former Council member Marc Hunt suggested the revision. Image courtesy of Marc Hunt

Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball sat on the dais at Asheville City Council’s June 27 meeting, filling in for absent City Manager Gary Jackson. It didn’t look like a comfortable place to be as Ball fielded sharply worded questions from Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and other members of Council about how cost projections for a major infrastructure project in the River Arts District underestimated construction costs by more than 50 percent — and why city staff kept mum for a month before informing Council or the public.

The River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project has been billed as a transformational undertaking that will revitalize Asheville’s riverfront, encourage private investment and provide residents of the RAD and surrounding areas with new opportunities to safely get around by foot, bicycle, public transit or car. More than just a roadway, the project was to have anchored a greenway network that would eventually connect to many more miles of greenways throughout Buncombe County.

In the wake of cost overruns, city staff scaled back those plans, eliminating three greenway sections and a “complete streets” package for Livingston Street that would have included pedestrian, bike and transit amenities. Still included in construction plans are 2.2 miles of roadway — which include the French Broad River East Greenway along Lyman Street from the Amboy Road bridge and along Riverside Drive to the Jeff Bowen Bridge — 6 acres of public open space, parking, a boat ramp, new trees, bike racks, a pilot stormwater and wetlands garden and underground stormwater infrastructure.

The final price tag for the project comes in at $54.6 million. A federal TIGER VI transportation grant will offset $14.6 million of the cost, while a Tourism Product Development Fund grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority will pitch in another $2.5 million. In approving the project, Council pledged an additional $6 million in city funds above what had previously been budgeted, bringing the city’s total investment to over $32 million.

Fair questions

Wisler eased into her questioning with some praise, complimenting city staff on sharing information with the public and incorporating their feedback into project plans. “So the public input on this project has been stellar — up to a point,” the vice mayor said. “But then, when the bids came in, it felt like radio silence.”

Why, she continued, didn’t staff let Council members and the public know the magnitude of the cost overruns in time to allow some opportunity to have a say in which the portions of the project will be delayed?

“Your questions are fair,” responded Ball. “When we received the bids — and that was a matter of five, six weeks ago — our primary concern was how to maneuver through and work with the Federal Highway Administration to maintain the $14.6 million.” That money was awarded as a TIGER VI grant in 2015, and it comes with strings attached, Ball said.

According to Council member Cecil Bothwell, who spoke to Xpress before the meeting, he and other members of Council were notified of the unexpectedly high bids on June 19. Council members then met with staff in groups of two (to avoid convening an illegal quorum outside of a public meeting) and learned about the reduced scope of the project.

“Given, honestly, the dynamics of the changing world in Washington,” Ball explained, “we were very concerned about being able to move fast and being able to get this funding secured.”

Up for bid

Even before the bids were opened and the extent of the difference between estimates and construction costs became clear, there were signs that things might not pan out as expected, judging from Ball’s remarks.

The city engaged Beverly Grant/Barnhill Construction in December 2016 for pre-construction services including a final cost estimate. The company projected then that construction costs would exceed a prior estimate of $50 million by $6 million. Council included an additional $6 million to cover the revised estimate in its budget for the Fiscal Year 2017-18, which begins July 1.

When the first rounds of bids were received, it became clear that a maximum of two companies had submitted bids for each of the six project components. One of the bidders was Beverly Grant/Barnhill. As required by state law when fewer than three bids are received, Ball explained, the bidding process was re-opened and a second round of bids was received two weeks later. Again, only two bidders responded, but the city was allowed to unseal the bids.

The winning bidder, Beverly Grant/Barnhill, was the same firm that had in December estimated the project at $56 million. The company’s final bid came in at $76 million and did not include at least one component of the project, the Livingston Street Complete Streets package. No bidders competed for that portion of the work, Ball said.

Asked after the meeting to confirm that Beverly Grant/Barnhill had underestimated the final construction cost by at least $20 million and still won the project, Ball said that was the case.

Responding to a question from Council member Julie Mayfield about whether the city could have chosen to scale back road construction and retain all of the planned greenways, Ball said she doubted that scope of work would have been acceptable to the Federal Highway Administration for the purpose of retaining the $14.6 million grant.

No time like the present

Another condition of the federal funding, Ball said, is that construction must begin by August 1. In order to comply with that requirement, the city must give 30 days notice to the contractor to mobilize for construction. Thus, if Council had declined staff’s request to authorize the revised project scope and budget on June 27, the future of the project would have been uncertain.

Council voted to incorporate a change to the revised project scope that seemed to have originated with former Council member Marc Hunt. Speaking during public comment, Hunt urged Council to direct staff to revise the greenway that will run alongside Lyman Street from Amboy Road to the future roundabout on the former site of 12 Bones Smokehouse. Originally, plans included adding a protected bike lane along that stretch of the road, as well as a pedestrian sidewalk on the opposite side of the road from the greenway.

The revised scope eliminated the protected bike lanes and sidewalk, leaving only the 10-foot wide greenway. Hunt proposed widening the greenway to a 16-foot wide “multi-use path” with striping to better accommodate future volume on the greenway, which will eventually connect with other segments of the greenway system. Hunt has also been working to promote a $4 million greenway and whitewater park north of the RAD projects in Woodfin.

According to Manheimer, staff had advised that the change could be made to widen that section of the French Broad East Greenway through a change-order process without rebidding the entire project.

CHANGE OF PLANS: The revised project still includes safety improvements for bicycle riders at the crossing of the Norfolk Southern Railway crossing near the Smoky Park Supper Club, said Steph Monson Dahl. Instead of crossing the roadway at that point, which would have required a $2.5 million retaining wall, the greenway will stay on the river side. The city will work with the railroad to improve safety for bikers. Image courtesy of the city of Asheville
CHANGE OF PLANS: The revised project still includes safety improvements for bicycle riders at the crossing of the Norfolk Southern Railway near the Smoky Park Supper Club, said Steph Monson Dahl. Instead of crossing the roadway at that point, which would have required a $2.5 million retaining wall, the greenway will stay on the river side. The city will work with the railroad to improve safety for bikers. Image courtesy of the city of Asheville

City staff, Council, stakeholders and members of the community had all been “shocked” by the final bids on the project, Manheimer said. “We’re really between a rock and a hard place,” she continued, noting that there’s no indication the construction environment and its skyrocketing costs will change anytime soon.

Reached after the meeting, Wisler pointed out that the city has already sunk significant funds into relocating utilities and acquiring property to prepare for the project. She said that not moving forward hadn’t been seriously contemplated, though the city might not have been able to proceed if the federal funding had fallen through.

In the end, members of City Council voted unanimously in favor of the revised scope and budget for the project. Council member Gordon Smith was absent.

To see a presentation given by Strategic Development Office Director Stephanie Monson Dahl at Council’s June 27 meeting, click here.

(For more information on the original scope of the project plans, see Road to redevelopment: Big infrastructure upgrades on RAD’s horizon.)

Also at Council’s June 27 meeting, Asheville Council passes resolution supporting medical cannabis.

 

 

 

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About Virginia Daffron
Associate Editor and News Reporter. Lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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14 thoughts on “Smaller project, bigger budget, approved for RAD

  1. Bummed

    This is an enormous failure. RADTIP should have been the centerpiece for active transportation and outdoor recreation in the city, but we’re left with a watered-down version that’s barely an improvement over current conditions. So much for the greenway boom the city has been bragging about! Everyone I’ve talked with is bitterly disappointed in the way this project was marketed to the public and subsequently managed. The city needs to take a hard look at how it screwed this up and quit writing checks it can’t cash.

    • Lulz

      Why? They aren’t spending their own money. They don’t care who struggles to pay for their insanity. And good on Beverly Grant for fleecing these inept buffoons for 20 more mil. Take advantage of it because it’s​ so easy to do. After all they’re dealing with people who are only experienced in government and nothing else.

      • luther blissett

        “good on Beverly Grant for fleecing these inept buffoons for 20 more mil.”

        There’s your blue-collar champion, self-proclaimed friend of the working stiff, the person who loves calling for investigations into supposed corruption but doesn’t seem to care if there was some side deal to clear the field and hike the bid.

        I expect Patrick Conant already has a FOIA request for the city’s correspondence with Beverly Grant/Barnhill.

    • Lulz

      Oh and stop blaming them and blame yourselves. Ready made reelections and vanilla candidates who run on their snowflake approval status and no real ability to manage money except to screw people out of theirs is coming home to roost. On top of pay raises for city staff who can’t make it on the the real world. Next up, watch as the bonds are raided to finish this farce and you still have issues left to deal with. Stupid Asheville voters LOL.

  2. So, a somewhat typical government project:

    1. Over budget
    2. Scope trimmed due to over budget, so delivers less while costing more
    3. Tbd, but will undoubtedly be late as well

    What is a bit atypical here is that the magnitude of the miss as the project was envisioned was 50% at the bid level, ie, before construction even began. Not large enough to be in class of the california white elephant train, but the scope trimming and overage is similar on a % basis.

    • luther blissett

      “What is a bit atypical here is that the magnitude of the miss as the project was envisioned was 50% at the bid level, ie, before construction even began.”

      They paid a private construction firm in good faith to provide an estimate guideline, and the private construction firm supplied that estimate. The private construction firm then offered a bid that was more than $20m over its own guideline (and its competitor firm offered an even bigger bid) while excluding components that it had priced up in its consulting work.

      And you’re blaming “government”, not private industry for a bait-and-switch. Well done you. [golf clap]

      For what it’s worth, I think City Council gets played on a regular and humiliating basis, but part of that is because of state law, and part of it is because City Council represents a space on the map that cannot move and the parties it deals with have the liberty to go elsewhere if they please. The only way to deal with that is to have a City Council that is okay with the city going to hell.

      • Lulz

        No, the way to deal with it is to stop subsidizing fluff projects for cronies. Council was warned last year that their RAD figures were low and yet like the college educated morons that they are, ignored it. Bothwell is loving in lala land. Manheimer lives in a law office bubble and has never managed a private business. Same goes for Beach Ferrara. As I’ve said, elect fools on special snowflake status instead of real world experience and reality will bite them hard. All one had to do now is advertise how inept and mismanaged these people are and hopefully we can see some positive change.

      • Lulz

        If people do not want to work on projects for the city, is it their fault? Or is it that anyone with half a brain won’t deal with the mounds of red tape and stupidity that is the hallmark of city projects. Everything council touches is a disaster. And ends up costing 2 to 3 times more.

        • Lulz

          If someone raises the bild of a project, it usually means that don’t really want to deal with it. But if they end up having to, well at least they ate going to make it worth it.

          • luther blissett

            Somehow I don’t think you take that attitude when you get a final bill from the plumber.

          • Lulz

            LOL unlike the idiots in government, I can’t just steal money on a whim. And if the plumbing needs repair, I try and fix it myself or enlist help. But the city does what? Simply thinks people will beg and plead to do business with them. And as you’re finding out, most don’t even want to look at them much less get involved with projects.

  3. TDA is Turrible

    The city should be embarrassed over this. What a lame and overly expensive project this has become.
    “2.2 miles of roadway — which include the French Broad River East Greenway along Lyman Street from the Amboy Road bridge and along Riverside Drive to the Jeff Bowen Bridge — 6 acres of public open space, parking, a boat ramp, new trees, bike racks, a pilot stormwater and wetlands garden and underground stormwater infrastructure.” For $55 MILLION???????

    • Lulz

      When the resident buffoon gets a DUI and acts like he’s king, you have to realize they do not live in reality.

  4. Deplorable Infidel

    What we have is a tribe of elected CRIMINALS who think nothing of this nor giving the housing authority $4.2 million, only to have the County do the same sheet.

    a DUI has NOTHING to do with all this lulz…

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