Delaying streetcars would be too risky, city council decides

The downtown streetcar route.

By Joe Lambe

After hours of debate, the city council on Thursday voted 8-5 to pass the streetcar construction management contract.

Many labor unions, a rival contractor and several councilmembers opposed the contract given to non-union firms from outside the city.

Supporters said rebidding the work would delay the $103 million downtown streetcars up to six months, putting at a $20 million federal grant for the project.

Councilman Scott Wagner, who voted yes, said his father was a union ironworker but it was too dangerous to delay the city’s first streetcar rebirth since the lines stopped running in 1957.

“I have the devil I know if I vote for this now,” he said. “There’s a devil I don’t know that scares the heck out of me.”

Councilman Scott Taylor, who voted no, said, “Every decision we make has risks but we all make the decision we’re comfortable with.”

The conflict arose after the city staff in July chose non-union Herzog Contracting Corp. of St. Joseph and Stacy and Witbeck of California to manage construction.

They got major points in a complex alternative bidding process because they have done billions of dollars of streetcar work in other cities.

They were also by far the lowest bidder with a pre-construction bid of $50,000.

They will manage about $60 million in construction work and can do up to 25 percent of it themselves. They have pledged to work with local unions on the rest of it and to meet minority contractor goals.

Union members on Thursday filled the chamber for the council business session, where most of the debate took place.

Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre said she worked with downtown businesses and technical experts in choosing that bidding system, which has also been used on the Sprint Center and the East Patrol police station.

It gives the city more control than conventional bidding as the project moves forward and should result in fewer change orders, she said. A panel of nine people scored the bids and all agreed on the scoring and selection.

Councilman John Sharp and others argued to rebid the project in a conventional manner with construction work going to the low bidder.

Councilman Russ Johnson, a leader in the streetcar effort, noted that the council voted unanimously last year on a resolution for the project that says to “identify and pursue cost-saving project delivery methods.”

To renege on that now puts the project and its hard won $20 million federal grant at risk, he said. The city is required to specify how the grant money will be spent by June.

Sharp called fear of losing the federal grant “scare tactics.”

Mayor Sly James said he went to Washington D.C. to lobby for the grant and was told they would only go to projects ready to begin.

“It’s no scare tactic,” he said of losing the grant. “It’s the truth.”

It would be wrong to overturn a process that all agreed to follow just because someone won and others lost, he said.

Councilwoman Cindy Circo said they won the grant because of the city’s overall process on the project, which critics should respect and follow.

There will be plenty of work as the critical downtown starter line expands citywide, she said. “This isn’t a 10-year project, this isn’t a 20-year project,” she said, “we’re talking decades and decades.”

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