Street project price tag soars
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Pinellas County commissioners worried last year when they heard it would cost $30-million to beautify Gulf Boulevard.
On Tuesday, the price tag jumped to $75-million.
"It's sticker shock," said County Commissioner Ken Welch.
Commissioners made no decisions Tuesday, but some said the project might be scaled back. That could include burying only the power lines that cross Gulf Boulevard and not those that run parallel to it.
Commissioners asked Phil Graham, the consultant who prepared the estimate, to find out how much money that would save.
"It's such a huge dollar amount," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "I'd like to have buried power lines in my neighborhood, but it's not going to happen. It's such a huge expense."
Latvala said later she's not necessarily opposed, but that commissioners need to talk more about whether it's needed. That's especially true, she said, since commissioners also heard Tuesday about other expensive problems, such as funding shortages to treat people who are mentally ill.
"If I had to choose between this and indigent care and substance abuse, this would lose," Latvala said.
Others were more optimistic. Commissioner John Morroni, whose district includes the south beaches, said the project is vital to the county's tourist economy. Advocates say it's a choice between making the beaches look like a thriving resort or a string of aging, second-rate beach towns.
"I know it's a lot of money, but this is why people come over here to our beaches," he said. "And we're losing our tourists."
Morroni pointed to ways Graham said the project could be trimmed to $47-million. That would include leaving out landscaping, park benches and other elements.
Get the beach cities to pay half, Morroni said, and the county's cost falls to $23-million.
"The $75-million is Johnny's wish list for Christmas," Morroni said. "It's everything he wants, but he's not going to get it all."
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. To cut to $47-million, Graham trimmed parts of the original project. But he called the $75-million a worst-case scenario. Among the costs it includes: paying property owners along the 22-mile stretch a total of $8.3-million for easements to bury power lines.
Latvala said later that she would pay for easements, which presumably would mean paying many hoteliers who would benefit from the project, "over my dead body."
Graham said property owners will be asked to donate the easements.
Graham, a St. Petersburg architect and planner, also surveyed possible state and federal grants. Those could be worth almost $15-million, he said.
The price tag increased so much because some costs, such as moving utilities, have increased, Graham said. Other costs, from paying for easements to rebuilding sidewalks after power lines are buried, weren't included in last year's estimate. The plan also grew from 19 miles to 22 miles.
Commissioners have talked about increasing the gas tax to pay for the project, then for other road improvements around the county. But each penny increase would raise about $3-million a year, and Pinellas could only increase it by an additional six cents. The new estimates leave little left for other work.
"It's a project we need to do, but the cost has more than doubled," Welch said. "I don't want to fully tap out that resource on one project."
Commissioner Karen Seel asked county staffers to look at other options, such as whether beach property owners could be charged a special fee on their power bill.
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