Metropolis: Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Iron railings do not a cheap bridge make.


Two overpasses being rebuilt on Fort Worth’s East Side have been dubbed “bridges over troubled waters” by some wags at City Hall, thanks to the tempest that’s been swirling around them for months. The reason: District 4 council member Becky Haskin’s demand that the bridges’ utilitarian concrete sidings be replaced by fancy wrought-iron railings — at an added cost to the city of $376,000.

Council purse-watcher Clyde Picht called the railings fluff and a “terrible waste of scarce taxpayer dollars,” in a year when the city’s budget gurus are scrounging to find money to fund essential services and to keep from laying off employees. “Why are we spending this kind of money on bridge rails when the city is facing an $11 million shortfall this year and is committed to $40 million in unfunded street repairs?” he asked.

Local manufacturer and occasional city contractor Jan Fershing, whose company, Therma Foam, lost a small contract for work on the original sidings when Haskin had them replaced, is upset — but not over the pulled contract, he said. “We didn’t lose but about $5,000. ...What disturbs me is the improper micromanaging of city business by a council member.” Her job, he said, is to set public policy, “not get involved in the design of a bridge railing.” Close to half a million dollars would “fix a lot of potholes,” Fershing said.

City staffers were pissed as well, according to one administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were pressured to spend time chasing down elusive dollars in some “creative way” simply to satisfy the whim of a council member. Haskin did not return numerous calls and e-mails from Fort Worth Weekly requesting comments.

The bridges in question span I-30 at Beach Street and Oakland Boulevard. No one questioned the need for the reconstruction. The long-neglected bridges were being rebuilt by the Texas Department of Transportation at no cost to the city — until Haskin upped the ante.

A series of city hall e-mails from the fall of 2002 through June 2003 between Haskin, city transportation and public works officials and honchos at TXDOT, delineate the councilwoman’s push for the upgraded wrought-iron railings — and give a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes frustrations of a city staff trying to comply with a council member’s demands.

Last year, the correspondence shows, Haskin decided that the traditional “Texas Classic” concrete railings that the state chose to grace the sides of the bridges in her district wouldn’t do. She wanted railings upgraded to a much more expensive wrought iron design that she saw on a bridge leading into a high-end subdivision in Trophy Club.

According to the e-mails and other public documents, Haskin described the two bridges in her district as “gateways” to downtown Fort Worth, justifying her request for the “more aesthetically designed railing” because of the bridges’ high visibility to tourists traveling westbound on I-30, a notion dismissed as frivolous by Picht. “Who notices the [overhead] bridge railings when they’re barreling along an interstate?” he said.

The state approved the design changes, as long as the city was willing to stand good for the added cost.

George Behmanesh, the city’s assistant director of transportation and public works, wrote to Haskin and to his staff, telling them the costs would be high because the design change request came so late in the process — bids had already been received and subcontractors approved. The total price tag for the two bridges, the state initially estimated, would be close to $238,000. “To the best of my knowledge,” Behmanesh wrote to Haskin, “there are no funds available.”

Still, Haskin insisted that the project go forward.

That’s when things got sticky. The e-mails attest to an anxious search by city staffers for the money. Using phrases like, “Let’s think outside the box, folks ... is there anywhere we can find funding for these railings?” and “Please put [on] your creative hat,” the city’s transportation administrators pushed their staff to find some money, somewhere. If all else failed, Behmanesh wrote, the only option would be to “shift funding from other projects [which will] require council approval.”

Then, according to the e-mails, construction problems directly related to the new railings surfaced, raising the city’s cost even more as state engineers and contractors were forced into unanticipated fixes: The concrete portion of the bridge that would support the railings had to be modified in order to fit the “Trophy Club type metal” onto the bridges. The Trophy Club railing, state engineers found, had problems with its steel welds, forcing modifications to be made in the steel in the decks. The added weight of the new railings also meant the bridges’ decks might need to be strengthened. And then the state required the city to commit to pay additional costs of any downtime if the general contractor was delayed by the installation of the new rails. On April 10, TXDOT wrote to say that the new railings would “also add 30 working days to the contract.”

In a January e-mail to state officials and his staff, Behmanesh voiced his frustrations with the whole affair: “Guys, I apologize. I know this railing issue has been a headache for all of you.”

The funds for Haskin’s railings, of course, were finally found. But there is more than one version of where the money actually came from. Haskin told the council and Fershing that she and the staff had found the money for the bridges in a long unused “assessment paving account.” The staff e-mails, however, raise questions about that source.

The city was facing a February drop-dead date set by the state for the bridge design changes to be either funded or trashed. The state wouldn’t proceed on the new railings, TXDOT told the city, until it knew the money had been approved by the council. In January, Fort Worth’s transportation and public works department head Robert Goode wrote to Behmanesh outlining a creative, if convoluted, plan that he told Behmanesh to present to the council. According to Goode, the staff would tap a projected surplus from an unfinished drainage improvement project and fund the bridges — on paper — from that still-theoretical surplus. In the interim, he wrote, the department would pay for the railings with bond money from an account for critical street construction projects. “We will reimburse [the critical projects] fund,” Goode wrote, “after the current phase of [the drainage project] is done. Then Goode told Behmanesh to “put the full cost of the next phase of [the drainage project] into the bond submittal” and “increase your funding to cover what we’re routing to the bridge railings.

“Let’s get this one behind us,” Goode said.

According to a city hall source familiar with the city’s funding procedures, “searching out different pockets of money,” as Goode and his staff were doing, is neither illegal nor unusual when the staff is faced with some critical need that has no designated funding source. Bridge railings, he said, hardly fit that criteria.

By the time the final recommendation from the transportation and public works department was presented to the council for a vote on Jan. 28, the costs of the enhanced railings had risen to $376,000. An ordinance authorizing the spending of that amount on the bridge rails said that the monies would come from “available funds.” The ordinance passed with one nay vote, that of Clyde Picht.

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