Wow. What’s this in my in-box? Some city hall news that isn’t directly related to the election? Refreshing!

Last week, CUPE 21, the union that represents the city’s outside workers, sent out a press release in which they question the official numbers coming from city hall regarding the cost of the City Square Plaza project.

At present, the city claims that the plaza has cost just over $13 million. That’s a far cry from the $6.8 million it was originally pitched at. But according to CUPE’s figures, when all the work on the plaza is finally finished and all the directly related costs are included in the bill, the plaza may actually cost the city more in the neighbourhood of $24 million.

It’s an alarming assertion. One that deserves a closer look .

So, after the jump, how CUPE adds up their figures, formatted as best I can in this infernal WordPress backend….

$299,447.00 ………. Downtown Transportation Study by IBI Group
$25,000.00 ……….. Bonus to IBI Group for completing before June 1, 2012
$? ………………….. Review of City Square Project Management by T. Bakkeli
$594,265.30 ………. Possible legal claims payment to Cohlmeyer Architecture
$? ………………….. Claims damage to utility companies’ infrastructure
$? ………………….. Unfinished work at City Square plaza not known
$10,000,000 ………. Cost to rebuild Lorne and Smith Streets
$10,918,712.30 …… Total of additional costs
$13,031,162.97 …… Paid invoices released by the City of Regina
$ 23,949,875.27 ….. POSSIBLE TOTAL COST

Basically then, CUPE’s argument is that there are a host of costs that have been incurred as a direct result of the plaza work. Consultants have been hired to study traffic impacts and assess how the project was managed, a lawsuit has been filed against the city, there are parts of the plaza that have yet to be completed and there are potentially other damages that we don’t know the full costs for yet.*

And all that sounds pretty rational and so I can accept that the price of the plaza may in the end shoot up another million dollars or more.

But then CUPE goes beyond this and also includes the $10 million to rebuild Lorne and Smith Street in their accounting. (That’s that road work that was going on near the library all summer.) And that’s what’s driving their possible total cost up over $20 million

So what’s CUPE’s rationale for including a road project that, while adjacent to the plaza, is not actually part of the plaza itself?

In their report, they explain it like this,

Another unanswered question is why the City is rebuilding Lorne and Smith Streets at this time? We know that traffic –including bus traffic – was redirected from 12th Avenue to these streets when the plaza was under construction. Now the streets are being reconstructed at the tune of $4.5 to $5.5 million each. McIntyre is scheduled to be reconstructed next year.

Our city streets are built to certain specifications depending on the kind of traffic that will be driven on them. Were Lorne, Smith and McIntyre streets built to withstand heavier traffic from buses? If there were not built to handle heavy load traffic, then why were buses redirected onto these streets? What is the total cost of the street reconstruction?

I’d actually asked about that Lorne St work months ago to find out what it was and if it was connected to the plaza. I was given a hand-wavey response that it’s unrelated and routine. But that answer came from someone who probably wasn’t the right person to ask about such a project. Still, they sounded sufficiently knowledgeable that I reckoned it was a dead end and I dropped it.

Well, after reading the CUPE report through I thought I’d better contact the right person to ask about such a project. And late today I got a call from Nigora Yulyakshieva, manager of roadways preservation. (She’s one of my favourite people to interview at city hall because she’s seriously no-nonsense, she has like a zillion numbers at her finger tips and she doesn’t pull punches about how her department needs a bigger budget.)

Here’s what she had to say,

“The downtown was built how many years back? The road structure needed improvement. I just want to clarify, I’ve heard many times that it’s part of the plaza project. It’s not. We had this on the plan but we waited until the plaza was completed. Because all the roads, they have to be reconstructed.”

I asked her if she’d heard about the CUPE report and she said yes. And as to the question of whether the roads were being rebuilt to accommodate the increased load from the new bus routes, she said,

“Once again, it’s not because we’re rerouting the buses. You know that [there are] traffic pattern change[s] and there’s lots of high rise buildings going [up] and you have to go and review your traffic routes, you have to review your traffic to remove congestion. And also, beside that, the road construction, we need that. The road structure was failing.”

She said that the work would have been done regardless of whether the plaza was built or not. That said, rebuilding the road is related to the downtown in that the roads in that area are going to need to maintenance to deal with the anticipated growth Regina is facing.

“But it’s all, how you say? Not connected but yeah, it’s all together. But again, driving these projects is the road condition. Of course, at any given street when we’re doing downtown or somewhere on the outskirts of the city, you have to look at the standards because the standards change. So you have to build the streets to the new standards.

Yulyakshieva says the road work on Lorne is such a big job because they’re not just resurfacing the road they’re rebuilding its entire structure, including all the infrastructure that’s underneath the road.

“When you’re doing any type of road reconstruction, because you’re putting in a new structure, you want to [find out] if what’s underneath needs to be improved or replaced. We needed to make sure the water lines meet those [new] standards. So this was upgrading the water lines to meet that growth. And SaskPower, they put more conduits to accommodate future growth, and we had old gas lines and SaskEnergy [took] the opportunity to lower their gas lines, they were high pressure gas lines. So because of that, it’s a big project because everybody has to work with their contractor and their engineering theorems. And it actually turned out well because we were scheduling the planning and working together.”

So, I don’t know. Maybe she was spinning me a line. But it sounds like the $10 million to fix Lorne and the other streets downtown probably shouldn’t be included in an accounting of the City Square Plaza project.

But good on CUPE for digging around and asking the question.

And this doesn’t change the fact that CUPE has identified other costs that should be considered part of the Plaza bill. The plaza isn’t even finished yet. We’re still paying for it. And there are some big honking question marks that need to get filled in with numbers.

So when someone like, say, a councillor, says that the project cost — as in, past tense, cost– $13 million, keep in mind that that’s not only already well over the original budget, the final total has yet to be tallied and they should be saying “cost… so far”.

* Okay, this is going to be one hell of a long footnote. More of a secondary blog post really. But here’s a breakdown for what some of those lines in the CUPE report mean.

CUPE is including a couple reports in their accounting that were started after the plaza was “completed”. (And by completed, I mean, made good enough for now.)

So, the Downtown Transportation Study is actually looking at the whole downtown, sure. But it’s something many councillors have said should have been done years ago as part of planning for the plaza. If that had been the case, then that study would have been paid off in the list of plaza-related invoices.

Also, the need for a traffic study specifically for downtown was necessitated by the changes to traffic flows caused by the plaza. And it became crucial once city staff (and/or council and/or the mayor) decided that the plaza should stay closed to traffic indefinitely. Once they floated that idea, they must’ve realized they’d created a traffic puzzle downtown more intricate than the most devious card you can draw in ThinkFun’s Rush Hour.

And when things in city planning get hard, you call in the professionals. Like IBI Group.

As for the Bakkeli report, including that in the plaza costs seems a no-brainer. It was an investigation into what went wrong with the plaza and wouldn’t have been required if the project hadn’t gone so dramatically over budget and over deadline.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how much the city paid for that report. But it’s probably safe to say it was many tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe even a couple hundred thousands. Actually, I have no idea and I’m just pulling numbers out of my butt.

Legal Fees and other damages
The $594,000-plus payout that may be going to Cohlmeyer Architecture as a result of the lawsuit they’ve taken out against the city also seems like it should be included here. Sure, the city may win the case and not have to pay this out but for the sake of this exercise it seems wise to keep it in mind.

As for the claims for damage to underground infrastructure, we don’t know if that question mark represents anything. Through an access to information request, CUPE says it attempted to get incident reports related to damage to any city, business or crown corporation property that happened as a result of the work on the plaza — and the costs of that damage — but the city replied,

“The release of these records has been denied because responsibility for the incidents has not been resolved and release may be injurious in the conduct of existing or anticipated legal proceedings.”

Very interesting. But a dead end at present.

Unfinished plaza work
In their report, CUPE actually makes reference to some articles (here’s one) that we’ve done here at humble ol’prairie dog that mention some of the stuff that is yet to come on the plaza. There’s a fountain that’s been purchased and currently sitting in storage but still needs to be installed somewhere — it was supposed to be incorporated in the stage but they’re looking to put it elsewhere. And those two cedar decks still need to get turned into pavilion buildings and last I heard they haven’t even found a suitable contractor to do that work yet.

And there may be more to come that we don’t know about.