The city has spent more than $63 million over three years as part of its capital improvement program (CIP), and is making a small dent in more than $250 million worth of backlogged infrastructure projects.
Those projects break down to nearly $15 million in roadway resurfacing, $5.1 million in sidewalk repair and installation, $13 million in drainage repair, $5 million in traffic signal repair and improvements, $12.5 million in parks and recreation improvements, and $4.9 million in repairs to city facilities and other infrastructure improvements.
These numbers don’t include more than $40 million that has been allocated for a number of other projects slated in the 2019 and 2020 budget years. In all, Executive Director of Public Works James DeLapp said, the city has been able to tackle some 26 percent of the backlog to this point in the process.
“Having a dedicated capital improvement program, which has a dedicated funding stream of the $21 million per year spread across seven districts … has been well overdue for this city and is a great testament to the council — the current council and this administration — that they took a step to put this in place,” DeLapp said. “So, the city and the citizens are really starting to feel the impact of that as we’re implementing what’s now over $100 million in funding that’s come in.”
In 2016, members of the Mobile City Council pushed to have revenue from a roughly 20 percent sales tax increase split evenly among the city’s seven council districts and used expressly for capital improvement. At the time, the city estimated it had a backlog of some $250 million on street-level infrastructure. Mayor Sandy Stimpson vetoed the proposal at first and his veto was overridden by a 6-1 council vote. Stimpson and his administration later embraced the program and have administered it on behalf of councilors ever since.
What has helped make the program so successful to this point, Councilman John Williams said, was the council’s vision to split the money evenly among districts.
“The equal distribution to all districts is the success of it,” Williams said. “There’s not a mayor out there who will look out for each district, even if he or she means to.”
Councilman Fred Richardson praised the program and the money it has brought in for projects in his District 1. Prior to 2016, the capital improvement funds flowing into his district were nonexistent.
“I came on the council in 1997, and from 1997 to 2015 the city did not spend one cent of local taxpayer money in my district,” Richardson said. “It has been transformative in those neighborhoods. If I had to name the one most transformative event in the history of the city, it would be the CIP.”
The lack of capital spending did not just impact District 1, but all other districts as well. Prior to 2016, the city was spending less than $3 million per year on capital improvements citywide, DeLapp said.
The seven-fold increase in the amount of funding led to some growing pains, which administration officials are still dealing with.
“We maybe had 120 projects within seven districts,” DeLapp said. “Each project requires a contract or two to do, so we had a lot of projects to award and we had, you know, [a small] amount of staff.”
One of the issues impacting the turnaround time is the number of contracts each project manager is responsible for. Each project, DeLapp said, involves two to three contracts, which means the city’s engineering and architectural engineering departments have been short-staffed. City officials are looking to hire a number of engineers to increase capacity.
“Knowing that, we’re in the process of trying to hire more project managers in both our engineering and architectural engineering departments,” DeLapp said. “So, we’re in the market for those folks and if people want to come work for the city, we’re happy to hire them. If they are hard-working with an engineering degree and are willing to participate, we’re ready to bring them aboard, because we’re trying to grow our staff to manage it.”
In addition to hiring, DeLapp said city officials learned to bundle contracts together more, in order to make everything more efficient.
Richardson blamed administration officials for the slow turnaround on some of the projects. He complained Stimpson has spent too much on consultants.
“There has been money spent on people to study things, but not people to go out and get the projects in,” Richardson said of the bid process.
However, City Engineer Nick Amberger said most projects take longer to organize than the public would think. For instance, resurfacings take among the shortest amount of time, Amberger said. On those projects, it takes “months of planning work” because it requires workers to come into neighborhoods and look for “incidental work,” like a broken curb.
“For us to take a bid on that work, we have to be able to quantify all that,” Amberger said. “That’s a project that has a short timeframe to it.”
Drainage work has a much longer timeframe, he said. In most cases, a drainage project requires the city to work out a real estate agreement, like a construction easement on private property, in order to complete the planning phases, he said.
“It’s a whole different process than the engineering and construction side,” Amberger said.
Councilwoman Bess Rich said she believes the program has been successful and credited it with many improvements to the only park in District 6. She said the new splash pad and other improvements to Medal of Honor Park would have only been possible through the CIP.
Despite the program’s success, Rich has concerns over the city’s 10 percent sales tax rate. She has argued for years to replace some of the sales tax with property tax.
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