Council had approved the project at a cost of $48.6 million. Contributing to the sum would be $17 million from federal grants, $4.7 million in federal funds passed through the state, $600,000 from the state’s clean water fund, $2.5 million from the Tourism Development Authority, and $300,000 from Buncombe County. To date, the city had spent $13.5 million on design, right-of-way acquisition, demolition, and utility relocation. The projects were bid out, and now the city was looking at a $26 million overrun.
Staff, accordingly, downscaled the project, jettisoning completion of the French Broad River Greenway West Bank, the Town Branch Greenway, and the Bacoate Greenway; improvements to Lyman Street to include protected bicycle lanes and sidewalks; mini-roundabouts, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian safety features for Livingston Street; an altered railroad crossing for bicycles on Riverside Drive; and a retaining wall for a sidewalk to serve Hillcrest.
As usual, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler got stuck asking the hard questions. As chair of council’s Finance Committee, she probed Acting City Manager Cathy Ball about why it took so long for her and everybody else to find out about the shortfalls, and why, if this project was designed to build social equity, infrastructure that would serve public housing communities was being cut.
Ball answered the city had had to conduct two rounds of bidding due to inadequate response, and construction costs had increased during the process. The bids from the second round had come back only 5-6 weeks ago. When staff saw the overruns, their first response was to work with the Federal Highway Administration to negotiate a smaller project that would not put in jeopardy their $14.6 million grant. Securing that funding was the first imperative, in light of all the current uncertainties in Washington, she said. The TDA was also consulted. The Livingston Street project was dropped because it had zero bids.
During public comment, former city councilor Marc Hunt recommended constructing a 16-foot, striped multiuse path on the west side of Lyman Street. He was concerned if the city only built the 10-foot wide path, commuters would be stuck with inadequate infrastructure indefinitely.
Jonathan Wainscott didn’t want to hear members of council celebrate city staff’s hard work and thoroughness and the community’s engagement when their estimates had been “incredibly wrong.” The only reason for the miscalculation he had heard was construction costs. “Somehow, in this building boom, that we paid millions of dollars to help create, we missed that fact…. Construction costs going up in the middle of a construction boom? Who would have thought? Are you kidding me?”
Wainscott suggested the public should worry about the city managing $74 million in new bond revenue. Its estimate for Craven Street repairs had missed by $6 million; the RADTIP, $26 million so far. He noted savings from the city’s celebrated lightbulb-switching program could cover the difference in 100 years. “I personally have no faith that these numbers we’re given now are going to hold,” he said.
The city had other problems in need of funding, he added, and leadership wasn’t building confidence in its ability to prioritize. “We’re going to go on a paving spree and not deal with our rusty pipes, so that our water pipes will then break and we can dig up our brand new roads. I watched it happen on Craven Street, over and over again in the last two years. Two years, which was supposed to be a six-month project.”
Council then approved several contracts and expanded the RADTIP budget by $6 million. Ball cautioned against detailing revisions. “At this point, we obviously are a little gun-shy about making commitments about being able to do certain things without knowing the cost and knowing the design parameters.” So, council directed staff to perform feasibility studies on Hunt’s proposal while the community would be given voice with opportunities for input through the pertinent advisory committees. Ball said there was still enough time to get a proposal back to council before construction had to start August 1.