Downtown construction delayed

City faces cost increases on couplet project

Bob Greenlaw, a senior civil engineer with the city of Chico, thinks the third time will be the charm when it comes to soliciting bids for construction of the First and Second Street Couplet, an increasingly costly project that will greatly change vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the northern part of downtown.

Approved in February of last year by the City Council, the plan, which is several years in the making, will transform First Street into a one-way westbound route from Flume to Salem streets. Conversely, East Second Street will become a one-way eastbound thoroughfare from Broadway to Flume streets. The project calls for a number of features, such as bike lanes, diagonal parking, and a roundabout at the intersection at Flume, East Second and East First streets, in front of the Chico News & Review office and Sierra Central Credit Union.

City staff had predicted to break ground this month on improvements that were originally estimated to cost $2 million, but the project’s pricetag has risen over the years to around $3 million, and in recent months it has been stalled not once, but twice, Greenlaw said, starting in July, when just two contractors submitted bids, both higher than anticipated.

“[They were] easily a quarter-million dollars out of whack,” said Greenlaw.

That led staff to a new approach in which the project would be divided into two phases. Among other things, the plan for the first phase was to include the conversion of First Street to a one-way street, and the construction of a drop-off circle where the street meets Chico State. The second phase was to include the conversion of Second Street and the roundabout at its eastern boundary.

Under the phased plan, with the latest bidding cycle ending early last month, city staff still anticipated breaking ground in September. But that target date is out of the question now; the first and second phases drew just two and three bids, respectively, and all of them were again significantly above estimates.

Greenlaw attributed the inflated rates to a number of factors, including bad timing, since the bids came in during the busy season for contractors. He noted that the first round included a time element that might require crews to work around the clock, thus inflating the cost.

Now, the plan is to wait a couple of months to solicit bids for a third time. That likely will take place sometime in November, when there’s more competition among contractors to secure jobs. Greenlaw estimates construction will start in the spring.

The changes to downtown’s landscape are designed to mitigate traffic congestion, promote bicycling, provide additional parking, and enhance safety for pedestrians and cyclists. In addition to balancing the needs of the various modes of travel, and cutting down on pollution, Greenlaw noted that capital projects spur economic development.

“Downtown right now really needs some investment in it,” he said.

The region that arguably will be most changed by the project is East First Street, which Greenlaw said is currently underused when it comes to traffic circulation. When completed, the project will essentially expand the borders of downtown northward into that area, he said.

While turning the street into a one-way thoroughfare will generate more traffic in front of the Shalom Thrift Store, Nancy Morgans-Ferguson isn’t looking forward to the construction. The founder of the Shalom Free Clinic, which operates the thrift shop, pointed to recent utility work that disrupted business.

Morgans-Ferguson said she isn’t convinced the project is beneficial for traffic circulation. She said she’s never had a terrible problem navigating downtown. Then again, she’s not sure it’s a bad thing, either. “We’re going to have to take it one day at a time,” she said.

Greenlaw said the project’s expansion over the years has driven up costs. For example, staff had originally anticipated that a slurry seal, a cost-effective technique used to seal pavement, would suffice on the streets. But upon further investigation, he said an asphalt overlay is clearly needed.

He said the city is working on ways to modify aspects of the project to bring the costs down, and that the phased approach will help accomplish that. “Right now, we’re just trying to ratchet it down to the best quality project for the price,” he said.

Meanwhile, staff will look for additional grants to complete the project. Currently, the city has acquired $1.3 million in grant funding. That’s on top of $700,000 in city monies. Despite the recent setbacks, Greenlaw said the funding will remain intact and the project will move forward.

“It’s just going to take longer, but we haven’t lost the momentum,” he said.