Alder Avenue in Sultan is known for its deteriorated condition, filled with potholes, uneven ridges and bumps in the pavement. The nearly four-year journey leading up to the street’s imminent reconstruction project was strikingly similar.
The long-awaited Alder Avenue reconstruction project, which will begin on June 30, was made possible primarily through a collective assortment of state and federal grant funding. The process, which began in January of 2011, was originally initiated by former Sultan City Administrator Deborah Knight, who took the project to the Washington State Legislature seeking a source of funding.
“Every year we go to Olympia and lobby for projects,” said Sultan Public Works Director Mick Matheson. “We ask for what’s called a legislative proviso.”
Traveling to Olympia is standard operating procedure for the city of Sultan. Staff members including City Administrator Ken Walker, Grants and Economic Development Coordinator Donna Murphy and Matheson travel to Olympia during each legislative session to advocate for various projects. Members of Sultan City Council also make the trip.
Knight made the decision to seek the legislative proviso, which is a direct appropriation of funding obtained through the Washington State Legislature, because Alder Avenue does not meet the criteria required by the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board (TIB). The difficulty with Alder is that it is not designated as an arterial roadway by the TIB, which makes the street ineligible for TIB funding.
Typically, TIB funds are a valuable resource when it comes to funding transportation improvement projects. The city of Sultan has received TIB funding for several arterial roadway projects including the Sultan Basin Road overlay project. Sources like the TIB are vital to small municipalities who otherwise have limited resources when it comes to funding transportation improvements.
All aspects of street maintenance, ranging from basic preservation to reconstruction, offer significant budgetary challenges to rural communities like Gold Bar and Sultan.
“We get about $12,000 a year and we try to use that for preservation, namely chip-seal projects, but that’s about it. It’s hardly anything,” said Matheson. “If we’re going to do transportation improvements we really need to rely on grants.”
Knight’s initial efforts at obtaining funding paid off and she was able to secure a $500,000 legislative proviso to go towards the reconstruction of Alder. But the funding opportunity was not without a caveat; the city could use the $500,000, which would ultimately be provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), but they could only use it after obtaining a specific roadway designation known as a Federal Functional Classification.
Matheson explained that obtaining such a designation was not a simple matter; the process was complicated and labor intensive.
Initially discouraged by the stipulation, the city made the decision to continue forging ahead. They received pro bono assistance from Seattle consulting firm Skillings Connelly, who agreed to help them achieve the required federal designation. It was a successful endeavor, and Alder Avenue became what is known as an “urban major collector.”
With the $500,000 in transportation improvement funding secured, the city realized that it made little sense to reconstruct the roadway without adequately addressing the condition of both the water and sewer utilities in the area.
“We have really old, dilapidated utilities underneath the street,” said Matheson. “They’re over 50 years old.”
Since the original $500,000 legislative proviso was limited in that it could only be used for transportation improvements, Matheson decided to seek additional grant funding to pay for improvements to the utilities. After obtaining a cost estimate from Seattle consulting firm Gray & Osborne, which included both the road and utility reconstruction, they approached the Snohomish County Housing Authority to apply for federal funding through the county’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.
“It’s a competitive process,” said Matheson. “We were competing against other Snohomish County entities for the money and its emphasis isn’t normally infrastructure.”
CDBG funding, which comes from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a source of federal funding administered by Snohomish County. While typically utilized for human services such as low income housing, the funding can also be used towards the revitalization of urban neighborhoods and improving community facilities.
Again, after an extensive application process, the city’s effort paid off, and they were granted a $145,000 CDBG grant to go towards the reconstruction of the utilities. While the money was a step in the right direction, it wasn’t enough to cover the entire utilities-related portion of the project, so they successfully obtained an additional $185,000 legislative proviso from the Washington State Legislature.
At this point, with essentially $830,000 in grant funding secured, plus an additional $30,517 grant obtained through the CDBG program to fund sidewalk improvements along that section of Alder, the city began to prepare the construction bid documents. It was then that they hit a major snag.
Within the patchwork of provisos and grant funding, there was a procedural conflict between the FHWA and the CDBG; both federal programs had decidedly different rules and guidelines when it came to hiring contracting agencies. These differences made it impossible for the city to hire one firm to provide the road reconstruction and the utility improvements.
Having to hire two or more different firms to complete the project would drive costs up significantly, possibly even putting the city back at square one. Despite the city’s best efforts, which included calling a formal meeting with all the involved agencies including representation from the Washington State Legislature, it seemed as though a compromise was simply not possible.
And then they discovered a program called the Special Experimental Project No. 14 (SEP-14), which could be utilized as a method for compromise between the FHWA and HUD, thus allowing the city to hire one contractor. Aided by Gray & Osborne to embark on yet another extensive application process, the city was granted the SEP-14 and finally able to begin the process for selecting a contracting firm to do the work.
It is estimated that the successful SEP-14 process will save the city around $90,000.
“We’re the first city to ever go through this process,” said Matheson. “There are a lot of eyes on us.”
The next step was putting the project out for bid, which led to another snag. And this one was a potential deal-breaker. Out of the three bids obtained, the amount of the lowest bid exceeded the city’s available funding by a significant dollar amount.
“We had a budget shortfall of approximately $86,000 in transportation and about $85,000 in sewer and water,” said Matheson. “We think the reason for this is the bid climate is changing; the economy is improving.”
“Contractors are busier… They don’t have to be as lean as they were during the recession,” continued Matheson. “We were really looking at the possibility of having to reject all bids.”
Faced with another crossroad, the city debated delaying the project, but strongly felt that losing momentum was a bad idea. So Matheson decided to reach out to the Transportation Improvement Board, despite Alder Avenue’s lack of arterial status, to see if any part of the transportation shortfall could be obtained through one of their programs. Fortunately, the TIB agreed to match a certain percentage of the city’s federal funding, even though they do not consider Alder Avenue an arterial roadway.
They agreed to grant the city $71,000, which left a remaining shortfall of $15,000. Matheson sought council approval to defer two projects which were budgeted for 2015; one $12,000 chip seal project and a $3,000 speed cushion project. Council approved the motion, and with that, the $86,000 transportation shortfall was alleviated.
Next, Matheson had to address the $85,000 sewer and water improvement shortfall. He went back to the county to see if there were any remaining CDBG funds that could be applied towards the project. They happened to have $50,000 available, which they allocated to the city. For the remaining $35,000 Matheson was able to use a small portion of a capital bond that the city obtained for future sewer and water improvements.
With that, the funding was, at last, in place and Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick was able to sign the contact. The total cost of the project will end up being approximately $1,031,517 out of which $981,517 was successfully obtained through state and federal grants.
The city held a ceremonial groundbreaking event on Tuesday, June 10, and actual construction is scheduled to begin on June 30. The project will completely reconstruct Alder Avenue from 5th to 8th Street, reconstruct the sewer and water lines, improve the storm drainage system and add a new sidewalk from 7th to 8th Street on the north side of the roadway.
“There’ll be flaggers and there has to be at least one lane open at all times,” said Matheson.
For any questions about the project, please contact the City of Sultan at (360) 793-2231.
Mayor Eslick acknowledged Matheson’s hard work and perseverance that spanned a time period of more than three years. It was his ability to overcome challenges that resulted in the project’s start date being right around the corner.
”Mick never gave up on the project,” said Eslick. “This project was a great example of relationship building.”