"We choose to fix our streets in the next 12 years and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too." -- John F. Kennedy, reinterpreted.
Last Thursday night, the Tulsa City Council approved, by the narrowest of margins, putting the $2 billion, 12-year street reconstruction and maintenance package--a.k.a. "Papa Bear"--before the voters, choosing it over the smaller five-year "Mama Bear" plan backed by Mayor Kathy Taylor.
The daily paper's editorial board-the group local political and former city councilor Chris Medlock calls the "Professional Bull Writers"--blasted the council majority as stubborn and irresponsible, and claimed they were only trying to inflict political damage on Taylor.
To underline their disgust, the daily ordered their cartoonist to depict the five wandering around blindly with traffic cones stuck on their heads.
As cynical as I am, I'm convinced that supporters of both the Papa Bear and Mama Bear plans were acting in good faith, although those on either side don't necessarily share that opinion about those on the other.
Papa Bear supporters believe Tulsans want the streets fixed and that this is the only plan that will bring the pavement condition index to an acceptable level. Mama Bear, they believe, would have us spending half a billion dollars to do nothing more than tread water.
Mama Bear supporters believe that Tulsans won't go for a streets plan the size of Papa Bear, that only a more modest plan has a chance of success at the polls, and that their plan makes as much progress as Papa Bear over the first five years.
Both sides raise reasonable concerns, and neither side deserves to be demonized by the other.
That's what makes last week's barrage of radio ads from the Fraternal Order of Police, attacking the $2 billion plan, so disheartening. Nearly every one of their objections would apply equally to any other plan.
And it's disingenuous for the FOP to attack the 12-year plan, which reserves a small percentage of the total for other capital needs, while claiming that the plan starves other departments. The five-year plan the FOP backs would have spent those dollars exclusively on streets, pushing capital needs of other departments, including the Police Department, off into the future.
I have my reservations about the Papa Bear plan, which I expressed in last week's UTW. My questions about the cost estimates have not yet been addressed, although I have been promised a more detailed basis of estimate. My concerns about the ability of the City of Tulsa's Public Works Department (TPWD) to accomplish the task would have applied to either streets plan.
Two billion dollars is a big number to get your head around. It's on the same order of magnitude as the $3 billion statewide road funding package adopted by the state legislature in 2006, authored by then-State Rep. Mark Liotta (R-Tulsa).
We should regard a $1.6 billion street improvement program as the municipal equivalent of Project Apollo. To manage such a colossal effort, we shouldn't be ashamed of looking beyond our borders for expertise.
I mean no disrespect to the devoted and experienced civil servants at TPWD, but the job of bringing every street in the City of Tulsa up to certain minimum standards is a job of incredible complexity, well beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of a city department that has struggled to just maintain the streets at their current state of disrepair.
Rather than TPWD contracting out individual street projects or small groups of projects as they do today, the city should seek proposals from private companies to do the entire job -- street rehabilitation, replacement, and maintenance, along with engineering and program management.
The size of the project would be substantial enough to attract interest in the competition from around the nation, perhaps even from around the world.
The city would ask prospective prime contractors to propose how they would:
bring our streets up to a pavement condition index of 70 or better,
keep the streets at or above that level for some number of years after,
while maintaining a certain standard of capacity during construction -- e.g. not closing or narrowing a given street longer than a certain number of days, avoiding simultaneously tying up a heavily traveled road and its alternates.
Rather than the city telling the bidders how to fix the streets, the prospective prime contractors would propose the technologies and construction techniques that they have found to be the most durable and cost-effective.
Each bidder would specify a firm fixed price to the city, along with their method for containing risks that could increase costs or delay completion.
Undoubtedly, the winning prime contractor would hire subcontractors, many of them Tulsa-based, to handle individual pieces of the project. But these subcontractors would have to follow the prime's construction practices and standards for quality.
A single prime contractor, with the experience to manage a complex rebuilding job, should be able to achieve efficiencies in the purchase of materials and the deployment of manpower. If delays prevent a crew from working on one job, the crew can be redeployed to another job.
It's Been Done Before
Think back to the big ice storm last December. Mayor Taylor used an expedited bid process to hire a contractor to clean up the storm debris. Thirty six firms bid on the contract, which was ultimately let for about $3 million. The winner was Storm Reconstruction Services of Mobile, Ala.
Tulsans (including this writer) were wowed not only by the speed with which SRS cleared debris, but by the care and thoroughness exercised by SRS's cleanup teams. SRS subcontracted with crews from all over the country. Within a little more than two months, SRS had made three passes through the city and the piles of debris were gone.
Contrast that with recovery from the June 3 windstorm. Rather than contracting the job out, it was handled directly by the City of Tulsa Public Works Department (TPWD). Although the wind storm damage was less drastic and widespread than that of the ice storm, nearly three months later there are still piles of brush throughout the city.
By looking nationally to hire a firm specializing in debris pickup, we found a company that could apply its experience to meet the need in an efficient and tidy manner, exceeding all expectations.
If city officials were to commit, before the election, to go nationwide with a request for proposals to manage the entire street rebuilding and maintenance effort, one of the prime objections to any streets package--the ability of TPWD to accomplish the task--goes away.
An Even Bigger Question
The bigger trust deficit, fed by the recent actions of the Tulsa Development Authority, regarding Novus Homes' proposal to develop the west side of Elgin between Archer and Brady, and the Tulsa Housing Authority, regarding their plan to relocate downtown YMCA residents to a 76-unit facility at Admiral and Yale, would remain an obstacle.
Many Tulsans will be watching this Thursday to see whether the City Council will capitulate under pressure and approve the indenture that creates the proposed Tulsa Stadium Improvement Trust, a legal document that would give disproportionate power to a handful of donors, while stiffing the downtown property owners that are providing nearly as much money as the donors toward a new downtown ballpark for the Drillers.
There's no need for a new trust. The Tulsa Public Facilities Authority already exists to control the Convention Center. The same authority could issue bonds for building the stadium and manage funds from assessments and leases.
The secrecy surrounding the plans of the Tulsa Stadium Improvement Trust -- for example, how they plan to spend $60 million when a small AA ballpark should only cost about half of that -- is not inspiring public confidence in their intentions.
If a new stadium trust must be created, its board should be selected in the same manner as other city trusts -- three year terms, appointed the Mayor with Council approval -- and its scope should be limited to building a baseball stadium and attached structures between Elgin and Greenwood, Archer and I-244. If the donors don't like that, perhaps we'd be better off building the ballpark strictly with assessment and lease money.
If the Council consents to the trust indenture without all the details being made public well in advance, it will be much harder for Tulsa taxpayers to trust this Council and Mayor with $2 billion.
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