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Downtown work slated for study

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Two Vandalia City Council committees have been charged with formulating a recommendation on the future of Vandalias downtown improvement project.

Mayor Rick Gottman assigned the issue to the councils streets/sewers and water/disposal plants committee at the end of a two-hour work session, during which city officials learned possible reasons for unsuccessful attempts at attracting bids for the streetscape and infrastructure improvement projects.

Also invited to sit in on that meeting were members of the Downtown Advisory Committee and Vandalia Looking for Lincoln Committee, as well as former Mayor Sandra Leidner. It was under Leidners leadership that the city received two federal TEA-21 grants for streetscape improvements.

In addition to explaining why the city did not get any bids for the project twice and then received two bids that were both 50-percent above the engineers estimates, representatives of the citys consulting engineering firm, HMG Engineers of Carlyle, laid out some options for the project work.

At the conclusion of Mondays meeting, Gottman asked HMG to speak with IDOT officials about the possibility of the state releasing some of the citys TEA-21 funds for the construction and installation of Vandalias Looking for Lincoln wayside exhibits.

Gottman and members of the citys Looking for Lincoln committee would like to have those storyboards in place by the time Illinois begins celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lincolns birth in June of next year.

At IDOTs September bid letting, the city received a $6.26-million bid from Plocher Construction Co. of Highland and a $6.707-million bid from Hanks Excavating & Landscaping Inc. of Belleville. HMG had estimated the project cost at about $4 million, and that bid was reviewed by IDOT engineers.

The bottom line is that we dont think their bids were realistic, said Scott Rakers of HMG. We still think our estimate was reasonable.

Lorne Jackson of HMG said the recent IDOT bid lettings have each included about 300 projects, and that HMG believes that contractors sought out the easy projects first and then backed off on the Vandalia project because of its scale and conditions.

Other reasons that the city has had difficulty bidding the project, Jackson said, are that there are not of lot of contractors in this area, and that those who have bid are basing their bids on labor costs in the St. Louis area.

Also, he said, the bids were higher because contractors knew that there wouldnt be much, if any, competition. Because of that, he said, contractors may have felt that they could up their prices.

Another factor is that because the city is getting federal funds through the state, contractors are required to do a considerable amount of paperwork. A contractor almost has to assign one person just to do the reporting work, Rakers said.

Options presented to the city by Jackson included putting the project in its current form into another IDOT bid letting. That is not the most realistic (option), Jackson said. Youll most likely get the same result.

Its an option, but I dont think its really worth trying, he said.

A second option, Jackson said, is that you can try to cut the project down to fit the funds that are available.

Logical things to pull out, he said, include running water service lines into downtown buildings; taking trash cans, benches and tree grates; and the use of real brick pavers in the sidewalks.

City Public Works Director John Moyer said he had talked to contractors who have been scared off the project because of the plan to run water lines into the buildings. Those contractors are fearful of damage to older buildings when that work is done.

Jackson said HMG is proposing that the city run the water lines to the face of the buildings, and that building owners be given the option of running their service lines at the time the citys work is done. This change would result in an estimated savings of $100,000-$120,000, Jackson said.

He also said that if the city takes the benches and trash cans out of the project, it still has the option of adding them later at a lower cost. City workers could save the city money by doing that work, Jackson said, with the savings estimated at $60,000.

The city could also cut project costs by replacing brick pavers in the sidewalks with brick-colored, stenciled concrete, Jackson said. The estimated savings for that change is $140,000, he said.

Another change proposed by HMG is full replacement of the road surface on Gallatin Street between Third and Seventh streets, as opposed to milling the existing surface and putting down an overlay.

Rakers said full replacement would cost about the same amount as the milling and overlay, and would make that aspect of the project more attractive to potential bidders.

Jackson said the city could also make the project more attractive by shutting down all four blocks of Gallatin Street at one time. Obviously, though, that would be more of an inconvenience to the property owners.

Yet another cost-saving option available to the city, he said, is dont do as much. Taking the 700 block of Gallatin Street would save as much as $500,000-$750,000, Jackson said. That idea was supported by several at the meeting, including Alderman Bret Brosman, who lives at the southeast corner of Seventh and Gallatin streets.

It already has brick and dogwood trees, and thats the obvious demarcation line for this project, Brosman said.

The city could also choose, Jackson said, to separate the infrastructure improvements from the streetscape improvements, which include period street lighting and the replacement of utility lines underground.

It could decide to have the infrastructure improvements completed first, then come back later and do the streetscape work, he said.

Near the close of the meeting, Jackson said HMGs new estimate for the downtown project is $5 million.

When questioned why that estimate is higher than the firms earlier estimate, Jackson said, We feel that the (original) numbers are good numbers for a typical project ... this is not a typical project.

Were not saying that we think it should be $5 million, but we think thats what it will come in at, Jackson said.

Leidner, who asked that the city consider selling TIF (Tax Increment Financing) bonds to help finance the improvements, encouraged city officials to move forward with the project.

The reason we got this (TEA-21 funding) in the first place is because we are so historic, and not (just) because of the (old state) capitol, she said, noting that Vandalia was picked as the terminus of the first national road in the early days of this country.

Vandalia was the wilderness capital, so much (a part) of the beginning of this nation, she said.

The use of brick pavers, she said, signify our history, and I think we need to do everything historic that we can.

We have more history in these four blocks (of Gallatin Street) than do 95 percent of Americas towns, Leidner said.