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Albany City Commission gives tentative approval to multimodal environmental assessment

Ongoing Albany transportation project well into its second decade

ALBANY — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before …

Purportedly to get new commissioners Bobby Coleman and B.J. Fletcher up to speed, but obviously partly to kick-fire their short-term memories, Albany City Commissioners questioned Assistant City Manager Wes Smith extensively at Tuesday’s commission work session when Smith reported that the Department of Transportation had formally turned down the city’s request for a categorical exclusion that would have allowed the city to skip a costly environmental assessment at the commission’s preferred multimodal transportation center site.

Despite a study that showed the city would realize a much lower cost by building the transportation hub at the location of the old Heritage House hotel, a site owned by the city, the commission voted last year to locate the multimodal site at the current bus depot/Destiny Travel site at 300 W. Oglethorpe Blvd. The vote came after numerous citizens said they preferred the current site at public meetings held to gather input on site location of the project that is well into its second decade.

“I don’t believe staff has given us enough information to make the best decision on this project,” Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell, the lone board member to vote against approval of funding the environmental assessment, said. “We need to go ahead and do what we’re going to do, but I want us to be prepared for what might happen if this site is turned down like the one on Jefferson (which was scrapped when Native American artifacts were found on the site during an assessment that cost the city $240,000.)”

Proclaiming that he was not going to “beat a dead horse,” Postell asked Smith for his take on DOT’s assessment of the preferred site selected by the board.

“I’m going to suggest that you not answer that,” City Manager James Taylor interrupted. “You can ask staff any questions you want, but any opinion should come from me.” When Postell asked Taylor for his opinion, the city manager said, “I have no idea.”

Fletcher asked Smith about the time-sensitivity of the project, and the assistant city manager told the board the city had already lost a considerable amount of potential funding by not moving forward with the project and would soon lose close to another million dollars in money earmarked for construction.

“That money has to be spent on construction of the project by September 2015, and that’s just not going to happen,” Smith said.

Noting the time factor, Fletcher made a motion to accept the request to fund the environmental study, action that’s expected to cost in the neighborhood of $200,000. During discussion, Ward I Commissioner John Howard asked if the city would have to pay for costs “above fair market value” used in purchasing the preferred site, and Taylor offered another bit of somber news that apparently caught some board members by surprise.

“At a minimum, you will have to pay for acquisition costs above fair market value,” Taylor said. “But I can tell you that at this time there is no funding for acquisition, so you may have to pay the entire cost of acquiring that property out of general funds.”

That prompted Postell to reply, “We’ve been on this project I know for 10 years (‘Thirteen,’ Taylor interjected), and the way we’re backpedaling we’re losing more and more money. If we keep backpedaling, the city’s going to end up paying for the whole thing. We don’t even seem to know how to get on the bus at the bus station.”

Smith recommended greenlighting the environmental assessment but allocating only half of the cost because the project will run into the new fiscal year. The board voted 5-1 to approve. Smith also said state DOT officials have promised to try and find other funding sources for the project.

After the meeting Fletcher said the information picked up at the meeting was beneficial.

“I’ve openly stated that I would like to see this project get done and that I supported it being in the Harlem district,” Fletcher said. “But I was not aware that the city might have to pay all costs to acquire that property. If (the property owners) do not work with the city to come up with a fair price, I’ll go on record right now saying I will support moving on to the next option.

“The bottom line is protecting taxpayers’ investment.”

The commission also voted to tentatively approve a rezoning request that would allow SJE Development to refurbish and subdivide former military housing on Owens Avenue so that the structures can be marketed as separate individual town homes, a request that was previously approved 8-0 by the Albany-Dougherty Planning Commission; and to submit a grant application to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources that would allow for a historic resource survey.

“City governments are recommended to do such a survey every 10 years,” Planning Director Paul Forgey told the board. “We haven’t done one since 1981. We recommend doing the survey in two phases with the first phase focusing on the existing historic district.”

The board voted to tentatively approve, pending final votes at next week’s night business meeting, a $40,000 records management contract with the Thronateeska Heritage Center to store and maintain city documents; OK’d $71,353 in funding for three police interceptors, two for the city’s Gang Task Force and one for the Albany Police Department’s Investigations Division, and gave the Albany Transit System approval to seek capital and operating grants that will pay for 80 percent of the department’s capital outlay and 50 percent of its operating costs.

The commission also approved an alcohol license transfer request, three license applications and four one-day licenses for fundraisers in the city by 5-1 votes.