Proposed transit center changes draw fire
MV council members balk at increased cost

Skagit Valley Herald

Mount Vernon City Council members say it may be time to put the brakes on the city's proposed downtown transit center - at least for a few months.

A proposal by city staff to double the size of the center and increase the cost by $1.5 million took some council members by surprise. The council recently refused to contribute more city money toward the $5.6 million project. Construction, which was slated to begin earlier this month, is now delayed until at least October. 'I've got some genuine concerns about this project right now,' said Mount Vernon City Council member Glenn Ash, who has never supported the downtown transit center.

Most council members also balked at a proposal to split construction into two phases: one for the site work and another for the actual construction.

'We said, no, this is an all-or-nothing deal,' Ash said.

Despite their concerns and another delay, supporters say they're confident the majority of council members will continue supporting the transit center.

'This is the council's job to make sure there are checks and balances,' Mount Vernon Mayor Skye Richendrfer said.

Skagit Transit is the only agency that has agreed to relocate to the center, council members say.

'I'm not a huge supporter of 'build it and they will come,'' said council member Dale Ragan. 'Without the funding in place and with a facility that doesn't come close to being able to cash-flow itself, it seems questionable whether this project should go forth at this point.'

Council members Bob Fiedler and April Walker echoed Ragan's concerns.

And some council members complain that the futures of two expected tenants - Amtrak and Skagit Transit - are questionable. Amtrak could cut back services as the train system struggles with financial problems. SKAT could face its own cutbacks if a Sept. 17 public vote to increase the portion of sales taxes that supports the bus service does not pass.

The city also hasn't sewn up an agreement with Skagit County to buy a county parking lot on the center site. Negotiations between the two agencies have included trading some county parking spaces for city parking slots.

Most council members have been committed to the transit center that will combine SKAT, Amtrak, Greyhound and taxi service in one location, south of Old Town Grainery Building between Interstate 5 and the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks.

But council members say they aren't willing to commit more money from the city's coffers. The city has put $200,000 toward the project it hopes will boost tourism and improve traffic through the city. Most of the money to pay for the transportation center has come from state and federal grants.

The increased costs can be blamed on some drastic changes to the original 1999 plans, said Dan Eisses, city capital programs manager.

Construction costs have inflated during the past few years, Eisses said. New state and federal permit requirements have dragged the project out longer than expected, he said.

Meantime, Burlington Northern Santa Fe is requiring the city to move the railroad crossing at Gates Street to Montgomery Street, and to build a movable platform for the train so the railroad can more easily maintain the tracks, Eisses said.

Burlington Northern adopted some stricter guidelines during the past year that required the city to tweak its center design, said Gus Melonas of Burlington Northern.

The city also proposed doubling the size of the center from 3,100 square feet to 6,600 square feet to accommodate offices for the Chamber of Commerce, SKAT and a large community meeting room, Mayor Richendrfer said.

Some council members were surprised by this year's addition of the proposed 1,800-square-foot community meeting room.

Richendrfer said community organizations and business owners have expressed the need for a large meeting room that could also be rented out for private parties and get-togethers, Richendrfer said.

A small meeting room was included in the 1999 plans when the center site was moved from College Way to downtown. The larger meeting room wasn't a big need when it was proposed for the College Way site, Richendrfer said.

The Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce also will be moving into the center, prompting the need for more office space, he said.

'This is going to be a nice I-5 location for us - very visible,' Mount Vernon Chamber Director Kirsten Whitener said. 'Having the transportation right there will help us help people get wherever they want to be.'

The Chamber is the only tenant that will pay rent at the center, so far, council member Ash complained. Ash wonders who will pay the $50,000 per year to operate the center.

Skagit Transit will have a transfer station at the center and an office. Amtrak also will have a train station. But neither of those public agencies will pay rent.

Skagit Transit has contributed $700,000 toward the project - $400,000 of which was a federal pass-through grant. State grants cover part of the cost of a new Amtrak station.

'The Chamber's share hardly seems enough with the kind of investment we've made,' council member Ragan said. 'I question the need to double the facility when we still don't have folks there. The project needs to support itself.'

The city is still negotiating details with Amtrak, and doesn't have a firm commitment from Greyhound or a taxi service to locate at the center.

SKAT signed an agreement with the city in October of 2000, cementing the public agency's commitment to the transit center, said Dale O'Brien, Skagit Transit executive director.

The center would mean that SKAT could save money by closing its transfer station on Alder Street and Riverside Drive and find a permanent home, O'Brien said. The agency is renting the station for $3,200 per month. Unknown is what share of maintenance and utility costs SKAT would pay.

The center also has a few other small hitches to get over before construction begins.

Skagit County still hasn't committed to selling the 136-space parking lot on the southeast corner of the transit site.

County Commissioner Ted Anderson said the city and county haven't formally agreed to a deal that would replace county parking in the city. Anderson has never supported having the transit center downtown.

'It would appear to me that they would wait and see what people said on the SKAT levy,' Anderson said. 'I would also get a contract with Amtrak.'

And finally, Ash has concerns about the state possibly widening Interstate 5 in the future.

'The viaduct plan through downtown Mount Vernon is being planned to accommodate expanded lanes of the freeway,' Ash said. 'We could be putting this on a compromised site in the near future.'

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