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…Oregonlive.com — January 12, 2012…
Should a simple bus shelter — basically a few benches covered by a roof — cost as much to build as a three-bedroom house? That’s a question that is provoking outrage and official embarrassment in the southern Oregon city of Grants Pass, which this week signed off on a project to build five bus shelters at an estimated cost of $106,000 apiece. To some, the price tag is particularly galling given the increasingly fierce competition for dwindling federal highway dollars, which are paying for the project.
“The price is obviously high,” said Grants Pass Mayor Mike Murphy, clearly chagrined at the negative publicity his city is getting. “It makes everyone want to hold their nose and gag a little bit here.” But he said the city has little control over the construction cost, which is dictated by a combination of federal and state spending rules. So what was supposed to be a symbol of civic progress instead has turned into an object lesson in the way government makes itself look bad.
“The feeling in the community is this is an outrageous use of federal money and so we should turn it down,” Murphy said. All that would do, he said, is send the dollars elsewhere and deprive the city — population 33,225 — and its small, four-route bus system of some attractive shelters. His inclination is to soldier on. Some council members, however, have said they want to bring the project back for more discussion and, potentially, another vote.
A brief history lesson is in order to grasp how Grants Pass got itself into this position.
Back in 2008, the city council decided to build more bus shelters for its growing transit system in hopes of attracting even more riders. The city occasionally has bouts of poor air quality, which allowed it to qualify for special highway funds under the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. By 2009, the city had an estimate of a little more than $300,000 for the whole project, which included design, engineering and original art installations at each shelter. The city contracted with Eugene-based Oregon Bridge Engineering Co. to start designing the shelters and do the engineering leg work that would allow construction bids to go out. The price tag kept going up, however, including an increase in the budget for art, which swelled from $2,500 to $15,000 per shelter. And by last week, the city council approved a project with an estimated cost of $530,000, which works out to $106,000 apiece.
By way of comparison, bus shelters for the city of Roseburg, a slightly smaller city to the north, cost between $7,000 and $11,000 each, said the city’s bus system manager Toby Notenboom. “Ours are pretty plain-Jane ones,” he said.
Engineering and design work on the Grants Pass shelters, which already has cost more than $100,000, would have been much cheaper if the city had been allowed to do it in-house, said Scott Lindberg, who oversees city grant money. But that’s not allowed under state and federal spending rules, which require a level of certification that Grants Pass doesn’t have, Lindberg said. The rules dictate everything from the size of the drawings to the type of computer programs used, he said, adding that budget estimates were worked out between city staff and Oregon Department of Transportation officials. “They were vetted and seemed adequate at the time,” Lindberg said. “I don’t know who bears the blame for the project cost.”
A state Department of Transportation spokesman said the city called the shots. ODOT administers the project and ensures the money is spent correctly, said Patrick Cooney. “The scope, what’s in the project, how much art is in the project — that’s all the city’s decision,” he said. Federal highway officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The cost, first reported in the Grants Pass Daily Courier, incensed local businesswoman Toni Webb, who happened to be in the market for a house at the time and was comparing prices of new construction. Local builder Adair Homes told her she could put up a nice 3-bedroom, two-bath house — excluding the price of land — for the same amount of money as a single bus shelter, an estimate confirmed Wednesday by Adair employee Johanna Siebert. “We could have put a whole house there,” she said. Webb said she raised a fuss because she’s tired of seeing federal tax money spent frivolously. “Everyone, including people in small towns, need to look at the budget deficit and do their part to control it,” she said. “We can’t leave it to Washington, D.C., to solve these problems.”
State Rep. Wally Hicks, a Republican who lives in Grants Pass, said he expects the bus shelter issue to come up during budget discussions at the Legislature next month. “It’s just not a good approach to spend that kind of money on a bus stop at this point,” Hicks said. “We need to recognize that tax dollars all start off at the same place.”
TEA Update: Last Thursday, the City Council voted to end the program, only to find that its vote is moot: the shelters project will continue.