West St. Paul advances Robert St. project as-is

The West St. Paul City Council decided to seek bids — for the second time — for what it estimates as $24.2 million in construction on Robert Street. The project would be the first phase of the whole Robert Street improvement plan.
The West St. Paul City Council decided to seek bids — for the second time — for what it estimates as $24.2 million in construction on Robert Street. The project would be the first phase of the whole Robert Street improvement plan. (File photo)

Council votes 6-0 to rebid Phase One

Bryan and Kristen Gerber moved to West St. Paul about three years ago, excited to take advantage of the many businesses along South Robert Street.

Now they say they avoid the busy, deteriorating thoroughfare at all costs.

“There are so many needless accidents; so many pedestrians crossing the street not in the crosswalks,” Bryan Gerber said. “I don’t want to take my kids in a car on Robert Street.”

The Gerbers were among 60-plus members of the crowd at a special West St. Paul City Council meeting devoted to the future of the Robert Street reconstruction project. After about an hour and a half of questions and comments from the public, the council voted 6-0 on Dec. 1 to, for a second time, seek bids for Phase One — construction services now estimated to cost $24.2 million, updated from the previous estimate of $20.8 million.

The two-phase overhaul will create a divided four-lane road, eliminating the current continuous left-turn lane and creating a landscaped median, new sidewalk and LED street lights.

The first phase — the one rebid on Monday — includes the street, signals and utilities, paid for through a combination of federal, state and city funds. In addition to the estimated $24.2 million for construction, the city estimates there will be $3.3 million in overhead and $3.45 million for property acquisition and right-of-way costs.

At current estimates due to the high bids, the city expects another $3.4 million “funding gap” may be added to its cut of the bill.

The second phase is expected to include the boulevards, sidewalks and landscaping, totaling about $4.7 million that would be funded locally. If the council pursues both phases, they’re expected to cost a total of nearly $35.65 million.

Too little to choose from

In October, the council faced a “hiccup” when only two companies bid on the project, with costs upwards of 37 percent more than the city anticipated, a response that the project consultant called shocking.

The council directed city staff and the contractor, SRF Consulting, to regroup. They found out construction companies primarily didn’t have the staff to respond to the bid.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s approval and the federal-aid process had already slowed the project this summer, according to Dave Hutton, a senior associate of SRF Consulting.

Another wrench was thrown in the works two weeks after the city advertised for bids, Hutton said, when St. Paul Water Utility decided to yank $1 million of water main from the project, leading to a “substantial change order amendment to the bids.”

Hutton said seeking bids in the next couple months may be ideal, in part because the contractors will be significantly less busy than they were this fall.

Not ‘a bug splatter’

Council member Dave Wright, who John Bellows will replace in January, tried to reassure the public that having to repeat the bidding process isn’t as bad as it may sound.

“This isn’t a bug splatter across a windshield,” said Wright. “This is a hiccup. We will get over it. We’ll move on.”

The council had the option of including a cheaper option in the city’s advertisement for bids, where the city would scale back several significant parts of the project.

Council member Jenny Halverson said she believes in the original reconstruction plan.

“Then we have the fallback option,” she said. “It’s really not quite right.”

It would have cost another about $150,000 for SRF to offer a scaled-back version of the project, with the original version as an alternate in the bid.

“That gets under my skin quite a bit,” Halverson said just before the vote Monday.

The council decided to rebid the project as-is.

The Robert Street revamp is a “once-in-lifetime opportunity to do it right,” Wright said.

Ready for change

Many of the speakers at the podium Monday night said they were ready for Robert Street to change. But most members of the public had concerns about how the project will cost and how construction and the new road features will affect the businesses on the 2.4-mile stretch.

While Robert Square next to the former Rainbow may benefit from the end product, the building’s owner, Kay Johnson, said she was concerned about the overall impact on area businesses during construction and after the street changes.

The city plans to maintain access to businesses as much as possible, keeping open at least two traffic lanes during construction and putting up signs directing drivers to businesses, along with other efforts to communicate and collaborate with business owners.

City staff hopes a redone Robert Street will help businesses flourish, draw new developments and boost the city’s tax base over time.

“The project needs to happen and it needs to happen right,” resident Bryan Gerber said at the meeting after the vote.

His wife, Kristen Gerber, added, “We’re willing to pay the taxes, because we want to like where we live.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.

Overview of phases, estimated costs

Phase One
(street resurfacing, signals, utilities)

Overall construction cost: estimated $24.2
million, depending on bids

Who pays:
Federal grant: $8 million
West St. Paul: $11.135 million
State: $5.6 million
Dakota County: $2 million
St. Paul Water Utility: $788,000
Inver Grove Heights, St. Paul: $31,000

According to West St. Paul city staff, the city’s portion of Phase One costs represents more than half of the 8.6 percent increase on an average property owner’s city taxes this year. That’s about $45 of the $79 jump to $999 in 2015 for a $160,000 home.

Additional cost estimates:
overhead: $3.3 million
purchase of private property: $3.45 million

Phase Two, to be considered later, would provide the boulevards, sidewalks and landscaping improvements on Robert Street, and would raise the entire Robert Street project cost to $35.65 million.

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