Split RTA board gives stop sign to Engineering appeal

       With a 5-4 vote Dec. 9, the board of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) said good-bye to the way major RTA projects in Colorado Springs have been managed for the past five years.

City Engineer Cam McNair appeals in vain to the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) on a proposal that would have changed RTA funding practices by contracting with the city for project management that used to be paid through the city's general fund.
Westside Pioneer photo

       The rare split vote reflected the two schools of thought on the request by City Engineer Cam McNair. Board members in the majority expressed concerns about tainting public trust in the regional body that voters approved in 2004. Meanwhile, those in the minority (including all three members of Colorado Springs City Council) believed McNair's request was efficient, economical and within the spirit of the RTA rules; they also felt it provided the surest way to finish the “A-list” projects pledged for completion in that same election.
       The board decision left uncertain how the city will go about managing $17 million in major, privately contracted projects in the coming year. These include the $224,000 Highway 24/21st Street safety project, which was to have started in mid-November but has been delayed indefinitely because of the project-management brouhaha.
       The RTA is funded with a 1-percent sales tax; split between projects (55 percent), transportation maintenance (35 percent) and transit (10 percent). Its board is made up of representatives from member agencies.
       The issue arose because City Council eliminated funding for RTA project management as part of its budget cuts for 2010. So McNair's pitch to the RTA was basically this: The agency will now have to fund the management of city projects itself, at a cost of about $1.2 million. So the best solution, at least for 2010, would be to contract with city engineers who are knowledgeable about the projects and would cost less than private engineers because the RTA would only be billed for city employees' salaries/benefits (the city continuing to pay for their office space and other costs).

Several RTA members listen (from left) Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera, Green Mountain Falls Mayor Tyler Stevens, Manitou Springs Mayor-elect Marc Snyder, Colorado Springs City Councilmember Larry Small, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark and County Commissioner Wayne Williams.
Westside Pioneer photo

       “I understand it's a matter of principle,” he told the board. “But engineers have principles too. It's something we've agonized over quite a bit.”
       A side effect of the board's vote is the elimination of the equivalent of 20 or more full-time positions from City Engineer-ing after this month, based on McNair's information about time spent on RTA work throughout the Engineering Department. Several City Engineering staffers had been watching the vote, knowing their jobs were on the line.
       This weighed on the mind of Sallie Clark, a Westside resident and El Paso County commissioner. “I know many of those employees,” she said in announcing her vote against McNair's plan. “I don't like making this decision today.”
       However, she explained her trouble with having the RTA suddenly start funding administrative costs that the city used to shoulder. While conceding that she did not see the request as illegal, “If we do it this time, are we opening the door to backfilling our own budgets?” she asked.
       The strongest voice against McNair's request was from Wayne Williams, a city resident who is also a county commissioner. He insisted that voters in 2004 had a greater interest in the RTA using all the funds possible for actual projects (plus the required percentage for transit) than in completing all the A-list projects. “The farther we depart from that, the more we jeopardize renewal of the RTA by the voters [in five years],” he said. “Voter confidence is a very fragile thing.”
       City Councilmember Jan Martin, also a Westsider, took the opposite view. “The public wants us to be more efficient,” she argued. “If we contract this out, the projects will stop while this [finding one or more contractors to manage the city's RTA projects] takes place… These are historic times, extraordinary times. We're pushing city officials to find solutions.”
       Complimenting the engineering staff, City Councilmember Larry Small added the point that under the current project-management system all the RTA projects have been completed “at or under budget.”
       Mayor Lionel Rivera was the third councilmember to back the request, introducing a motion in the wording that McNair had suggested. He also sparred with Williams, who had criticized what he termed as a monetary gap in Engineering's financial calculations. Rivera's response was that the city wouldn't have as much of a financial shortfall if the county hadn't “changed the formula” for the money from a separate road and bridge tax so that the county now keeps it all instead of sharing it with other government entities in the county, as once had been the practice.
       According to McNair, project manager duties take in budgets and schedules, public communications, utilities relocations, coordination with other governments, legal matters, permit approvals, rights of way and ensuring that work meets specifications.
       McNair's request had the unanimous support of the RTA's Citizens Advisory Board; also, during a public comments period, several speakers in the road construction business (including a few involved in RTA contracts) spoke in favor of keeping the city team.
       However, Williams was skeptical of the speakers because of their RTA ties and because of an impression - denied by McNair - that the latter had solicited public support before the meeting.
       The five votes against McNair's request were Clark, Williams, Green Mountain Falls Mayor Tyler Stevens, County Commissioner Dennis Hisey and Ramah Trustee Pamela Smith. The four in favor were Rivera, Martin, Small and Manitou Springs Mayor-elect Marc Snyder.

Westside Pioneer article