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Monday, December 21, 2009

Yakima, Wash., railroad underpass bids pass muster

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The city of Yakima, Wash., expects to break ground on the railroad underpass project next March, thanks to some surprisingly low bids from contractors and political support from local members of Congress who hope to bring back more money from Washington, D.C. the Yakima Herald-Republic reports.

City officials received the first round bids for initial construction, and so far the numbers look good. City Manager Dick Zais said the low bid of nearly $11.2 million for the first of two street tunnels under the BNSF came in $3 million under the city's estimate. Zais, whose determination to build tunnels under the train tracks on Lincoln Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has earned scorn from some quarters, was visibly pleased.

"It's a good day, good day," said Zais, who clearly wasn't describing the gloomy, slushy weather outside City Hall.

The apparent low bidder was Apollo Inc., a general contracting firm based in Kennewick that has done other, smaller projects for the city. Knobel's Electric of Yakima is signed on as a subcontractor. If Apollo's bid is approved, it will construct the Lincoln Avenue underpass. The bid and construction for the second underpass, on MLK Boulevard, is expected next year.

All seven bids were under the estimate for the first tunnel, ranging from Apollo's low of $11.2 million to a high of $13.9 million. Two others were within range of Apollo's bid. The final awarding of the bid is not expected for at least a month.

"That really kind of validates" the Apollo bid, City Engineer Doug Mayo said of other low bids. "You kind of get nervous when somebody's way down below everybody else."

Michael Morales, deputy director of the city Community and Economic Development Department, said a bid that comes in 20 percent below the engineering estimate is not surprising in the current economy. Contractors are hungry for work.

"Given what we're hearing from other cities, this isn't as alarming as it would have been a couple years ago," he said.

City officials were hoping for a big break because they need one -- or two. The underpass project, pegged at $42 million, will be one of the biggest public works projects in Yakima history. Officially known as the Railroad Grade Separation, the goal is to keep vehicle traffic flowing on Lincoln and MLK by routing the streets under the train tracks. Zais has predicted that railroad freight traffic will increase in coming decades.

City officials have put together a mix of federal and state grants to pay for the underpasses, along with more modest contributions from the city and BNSF. But until recently, Yakima was still about $8 million short.

Now, along with a promised congressional earmark of $2 million by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, the bid means the city is now just $3 million off full funding.

In addition to construction of the street tunnels, the total project cost includes pre-construction costs, such as engineering, design, right-of-way purchasing and utility relocation. There are also contingency funds for unexpected expenses.

The street tunnels have been talked about since at least the early 1970s and are said to be the largest public works project -- some say boondoggle -- in the city's history. Included in the project is a plan to dress up the underpasses with dozens of brightly lit glass panels designed to mimic apple bins in both shape and scale. The $700,000 cost for the art represents 1.7 percent of the overall budget. The art is not required by law but reflects the opinion of civic leaders, who have said a public works project of this scope needs some color.

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