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Spiraling bus project returns to Modesto council

An out-of-control architectural contract that triggered spending reforms in the Modesto Public Works Department is back in front of the City Council tonight at twice its original cost.

The council is scheduled to vote on whether to hire new architects to finish designing a bus maintenance facility. The city's been trying to build the facility for close to a decade.

The current facility, a 92-year-old former creamery at Eighth and Washington streets, is "literally crumbling," said city Transit Manager Fred Cavanah. It's too small to accommodate the city's bigger buses. The concrete floor sinks when too much weight is placed on it.

The council approved a design concept for a replacement facility in 2000. The project stalled in 2006, when architects with a $590,000 contract to design the building said they needed an extra $354,000 to finish the job. The council canceled the contract. That incident prompted a city policy to tighten controls on contract spending.

Tonight, the council takes up the matter again. This time, Oakland's VBN Architects say they will need up to $716,112 to complete what the original firm started.

That's not the only cost increase. Earlier this year, the council approved a $136,000 contract with Sacramento's RBF Consulting to act as project managers for the building's design phase.

That means it will cost at least $1.4 million to design the project.

About 80 percent of the project's total budget, now estimated at $17.3 million, will come from federal transit dollars.

Price, plans expand

In 1998, the project's total estimated cost was about $9.5 million. The budget has grown since then, and so have plans for the building, said Deputy Public Works Director Richard Ulm. The original plans called for a 16,000- square-foot building; now it's slated to be 28,000 square feet.

The city approved the $590,000 contract with New York architects Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas Inc. in 2002. The next year, the city's Transportation Policy Committee approved changes to the original plans, including adding siding that was considered more aesthetically pleasing.

That increased costs.

So did a $96,958 contract amendment the council approved for additions such as a canopy to cover some of the bus parking spaces.

By the time the project made it on the council's agenda again in 2006, Parsons Brinckerhoff said asked for an additional $354,000. The council balked at the idea of nearly doubling its original design contract.

"This is a classic example of how not to do business," Councilman Will O'Bryant said at a 2006 meeting. "I thought we had safeguards to keep this from happening, but apparently we don't."

Cost overrun policy

In the wake of that experience, the city developed a policy to keep costs in check. Now, if budgets on larger projects start running more than 10 percent over estimates, the council has the power to pull the plug.

But even with that watchdog measure in place, city staff says it needs help keeping an eye on the project. That's why the city signed a $136,000 contract with Sacramento's RBF Consulting to manage the bus facility's design.

City: Public works swamped

Ulm said the city needs project managers because public works employees have too much work on their plates. Utility projects have swelled the department's workload to about five times larger than normal, Ulm said.

Councilwoman Janice Keating voted against the project management contract. "At the city we tend to be like a pendulum," Keating said. "We swing from one extreme to the other. We had no budgetary controls whatsoever, now we're paying someone to have the budgetary controls. What I'd like to see is the pendulum to settle in the middle and have one of our people, that we pay, to take responsibility for a project in their domain."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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