Asked to pick priorities among 10 costly city projects, City Council members put sidewalks at the top – by 18 points.
“That’s one good clear signal, and one good clear signal is great,” Councilman Steve Schewel said.
In conjunction with preparing the city’s 2015-16 budget, in February City Manager Tom Bonfield asked council members to rank a set of big-ticket capital projects – estimated costs ranging from $10 million to $35 million – so city administrators would have an idea of which are worth pursuing in the relatively near term.
With a total estimated cost of $150.8 million, the 10 are “really big projects” that have not been factored into the city’s long-range revenue and spending models, “but are everywhere in people’s conversations,” Bonfield said.
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“We can’t afford it all and we need to ... decide where to go,” he said.
To do their rankings, the council used a “paired comparison analysis” (nando.com/uwash), an objective system that is, Bonfield said, useful when “comparing apples with oranges.”
A $15-million package including an update of the 2006 DurhamWalks! plan and constructing some of the plan’s highest-priority sidewalks that currently have no funding in the pipeline, had a consensus score of 11, on a scale in which the lower the number, the higher the ranking.
In second place with 29 points, at $24.8 million, came “Station Area Strategic Infrastructure” (SASI) – road, pedestrian-bicycle, “streetscape” and other construction for access to stations on the planned Durham-Orange Light Rail line.
“I’m delighted to see those two pieces of infrastructure at the top of the list,” said Councilman Don Moffitt, pointing out that sidewalks are part of the station-area package and adding that the most recent citizen-opinion survey also showed new sidewalks to be a top priority for the public.
“I ranked sidewalks high because I see so many people walking in the streets,” said Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, “especially in northern Durham.”
The rest, in descending order of priority, with rough cost estimates:
▪ A multi-field athletic complex capable of hosting local and regional events: $15 million. 33 points.
▪ Aquatic center: $10 million. 34 points.
▪ Completion of Fayetteville Street widening: $12.5 million. 36 points.
▪ Duke Beltline trail: $10 million. 37 points.
▪ Central Park district parking garage: $10 million. 37 points.
▪ Downtown Loop two-way conversion: $35 million. 38 points.
▪ Downtown parking garage: $10 million.$18.5 million. 41 points.
▪ Suburban recreation center: $10 million. 49 points.
Group consensus nothwithstanding, there was a diversity of opinion among the seven individual council members. Mayor Bill Bell, for example, was high on the two parking garages.
“I looked at the problems we have about parking downtown,” he said. “We’re still trying to grow the downtown area, and I get comments from restaurant owners that say, ‘Hey, you’re squeezing us out with some of the parking issues we have.’
“We can’t continue the development we have downtown without parking,” Bell said. “We’ve got to build them whether we like it or not.”
Councilman Eugene Brown had a similar opinion.
“In 2007, office parks in suburbia peaked,” Brown said, “and now the entire movement has come back to the city, not just for housing but with offices, with businesses. We need to be ready for that curve.”
Councilwoman Diane Catotti said the city shouldn’t have to carry that cost alone.
“Parking garages and the Downtown Loop (two-way conversion) are things our business community is requesting, and I feel like they can make significant contributions to help us get those built,” she said.
Private developers could also be expected to cover some costs of the station-area infrastructure, too, she said. Brown echoed that opinion, but ranked the station-area work only eighth and reminded his colleagues that funding for the light-rail line remains uncertain.
“It would be rather foolish of us to spend the $25 million ... to prepare these sites and then find, lo and behold, we can’t afford a transit system because we can’t get enough (money) from the state government or the federal government,” he said.
Plans for the light-rail line anticipated half the construction cost coming from the Federal Transit Authority and 25 percent from the state, the other 25 percent from a half-cent sales tax Durham and Orange County voters approved in 2012 and 2013.
“This is almost sort of a chicken and egg (situation) except who’s in control of the chicken?” Brown said. “With the transit issue, we’re not in control of the chicken. That’s federal and state government, and we don’t want to be left with egg on our face if we do all this and the transit system doesn’t happen.”
Whether and when any of the projects go into the city’s revenue and spending modules remains to be determined, though.
“There are lots of other capital improvement needs,” Councilman Don Moffitt said.