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Angier/Driver in line for streetscape funding-But what does it mean for the remaining streetscape projects?

                A reading of Thursday’s City Council Work Session agenda reveals good news for advocates of Durham’s Targeted Neighborhood Commercial Streetscapes project.  One of the five targeted neighborhoods, the Angier/Driver corridor, has been selected to receive funding for final design and implementation of the proposed streetscape development.  The city’s chosen source of funding, however, has lead many community members to question the city’s commitment to implementing the remaining four streetscape projects.

                The city’s streetscapes program has drawn wide coverage in local media, including the N&O, Herald-Sun, and here at BCR-- it even drew a nod from Mayor Bell during this February’s State of the City Address.  The program is an attempt to inject new life into long-struggling business districts in Durham’s urban core, with five commercial districts targeted for the initial design phase.  Funding for the design work, which was conducted by Akron, OH based EG&G Inc., was obtained through the 2005 Streets and Sidewalk Bond ($1.2m) with $750,000 from additional, ‘pay-as-you-go’ sources.  The public meetings and preliminary design work, which cost the city just under $300,000, culminated last spring with a focused vision for rejuvenated business districts.  The price tag for implementation of all recommended elements in the five corridors was steep, with an initial estimate of $55.3 million.  Of this, over half ($33.3m) was for the 3-mile stretch of Fayetteville St, with the balance split between West Chapel Hill St ($4.6m), East Main St ($5.0m), North Mangun/Corporation St ($5.9m), and the Angier Ave/Driver St intersection ($6.6m).

                Due to the high cost, the streetscape advisory committee, which consists of representatives from each of the targeted neighborhoods, presented a Phase I suggestion, which pared back each district to a core area, reducing the initial cost to $15.8 million.  EG&G coordinated with the city to apply for multiple federal funding sources, including requests to Sen. Kay Hagan, Rep. David Price, and an application to the USDOT’s TIGER program.  Attempts to secure federal funding were unsuccessful, but the item was placed in the city’s 2010-2015 Capital Improvements Program project list.

                It came as a surprise to many advocates of the streetscape program when an agenda item for the Angier/Driver streetscape appeared in the public agenda for this Thursday’s City Council Work Session.  The item requests the re-allocation of $1m from the Liggett Street Streetscape Fund and $571,094 from the Neighborhood Revitalization Fund to the neighborhood streetscapes fund for the construction of the Angier/Driver streetscape.  Additionally, the city seeks to extend their contract with EG&G for final engineering plans for the Angier/Driver streetscape project.  The move for funding Angier/Driver came as a surprise to members of the streetscapes advisory committee, some of whom stated that they had no previous contact from the city about Angier/Driver.

                One pressing concern for members of the remaining four streetscape communities is the method in which the city is funding the Angier/Driver streetscape.  Money for the streetscape is coming mostly from non-renewing sources, including a $1m surplus from the Liggett St (West Village II) streetscape, which is currently nearing completion.  Additionally, leftover monies from the initial round of streetscape design, which are being used entirely for the single streetscape project, are not set to be replenished from any source.  Rounding out the Angier/Driver funding sources is $571,094 from the Neighborhood Revitalization Fund, a fund started last year as an administrative priority by the City Manager and City Council.  This fund, which is scheduled to be replenished with $750,000 in the FY10-11 budget, carries a $1.2m cap and is designed to serve as a source of funding for projects that rejuvenate Durham’s urban neighborhoods.  By using one-time only funds, the city is leading some supporters of the streetscapes projects to question the city’s commitment to completing the remaining Phase I streetscape projects.  In fact, astute observers will note that the neighborhood streetscapes no longer appear in the city’s searchable CIP database (although the project does still appear in the PDF version of the 2010-2015 Capital Improvements Program Book).

                Although most community representatives I spoke to when researching this story were excited to see the city commencing work on one of the five streetscape projects, worry remains over how the city will fund the remaining Phase I streetscape projects.  Roughly $13m is required to finish implementation of the first phase alone, and with an annual budget of $353.4m, the city will be hard-pressed to pay for the project directly from its general fund.  Additionally, it would take quite some time for the $750,000 a year added to the Neighborhood Revitalization Fund to accrue a balance that could fund additional streetscape projects.

One possibility discussed in some circles has been adding the remaining Phase I streetscape projects to a street repaving bond.  A March article in the Herald-Sun noted that it would take approximately $19m to rectify the years of ‘deferred maintenance’ that has left Durham’s streets in poor condition.  Combining these two items into a $32m bond referendum on the Fall 2010 ballot would create a bond issue roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the 2005 $18.5m street resurfacing and sidewalk bond and 2007’s $20m street bond (the 2005 bond issue was accompanied by $7.3m for parking facilities, along with $84m for cultural facilities, parks & recreation, and water & sewer projects).

A bond issue, however, would be dependent upon Durham’s ability to undertake additional debt.   Preliminary budget projections show the city’s current debt obligations at 13.17% of its budget; the city’s goal is to keep this number under 15% in an effort to maintain its AAA debt rating.  Earlier in the current budget cycle, discussion of an additional streets bond indicated that a decision on the matter will not be made until after finalization of the city’s FY2010-11 budget, which is in its final draft stages and is scheduled to be voted upon at the June 21st City Council meeting.  An additional hurdle to the streets bond includes Public Works’ ability to oversee multiple construction projects, with that same Herald-Sun article from above noting that the city would need to hire consultants at a cost of $2.5m to oversee all backlogged street repaving projects in a single year.  Support for a combined repaving and streetscapes bond, however, appears wide-spread; a summary from March’s Neighborhood Engagement Forum indicates that street repair and neighborhood revitalization both remain top priorities for Durham’s citizens.  Both of these items also ranked very highly during surveys conducted as part of Durham’s Strategic Planning Process, a draft of which will be discussed by council on Thursday as well.  It will still be a few months, however, before City Council signals their willingness to present a bond referendum during these oft-discussed “tough economic times”.

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