Longform

Tar and Feathers in Your Cap

City Councilmember Paul Johnson got his election-year dream. Now he's hoping it doesn't rain.

Earlier this year--with the upcoming October 3 city election looming--Johnson began pressuring the city staff to immediately tear up and repave Dunlap Avenue rather than do the improvements next year as originally planned. Johnson says accelerating the project wasn't done to impress voters when they go to the polls next month. In fact, he insists, at the time he didn't even think he was going to seek re-election. And he certainly didn't know he would face a free ride with no election opposition.

Nonetheless, Johnson's constituents will get their newly paved street ahead of schedule. What they'll also get--which probably won't be obvious until after the election--is floating manhole covers and a swamped Central Avenue. All because Johnson wanted to tinker with the street-paving priorities in the $92 million bond program approved last year by voters.

Those street projects, carefully put together by city bureaucrats and blessed by a citizens' bond committee, occasionally fall prey to the heavy-handed election-year tampering of elected officials. That's why Phoenix winds up with half-completed paving projects in some places while needed--and planned--improvements disappear from the list. For example:

* Mary Rose Wilcox didn't like the idea of widening a half-mile stretch of Seventh Avenue, saying it would ruin its use for pedestrians. So the project was killed.

* Howard Adams grumbled about tearing up yet another central city street before the Papago Freeway was finished and worried about some adjacent development. So city traffic officials put off for at least a year rebuilding a one-and-one-half mile segment of Indian School Road.

* Linda Nadolski criticized plans to widen 16th Street, what with construction of the Squaw Peak Parkway nearby. So the project--which was added to the "must do" list as a high priority only a year earlier--simply dropped from sight.

In Johnson's case, the Dunlap Avenue project was rushed to bid and the street is now torn up. The project should be completed by late October.

Johnson says his request to speed up construction was just his way of helping spur redevelopment in Sunnyslope. The city, which owns property at the southeast corner of Central and Dunlap, was negotiating with Trammell Crow Co. to build a shopping center on that land; the widened street was supposed to spur that project along. But the company backed out about three months ago, concluding that market conditions didn't make such a venture financially attractive.

By that time, though, the bids for the road-paving project had already been opened and work began in July.

There was more to the timing than simply trying to please Trammel Crow and other potential developers: Johnson wanted the job finished by the end of the year. He insists he wasn't trying to have a nearly completed project under his belt by the city election. In fact, he says, if he wanted to assure his job, he would have made sure the project didn't start until after the election so the torn-up street didn't upset district residents.

But the two-term councilmember needs to worry more about anger among many Sunnyslope residents and business owners who believe their cries for redevelopment aid have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. (During meetings in Sunnyslope, Johnson is constantly questioned by business people and residents about the prospects for economic development in the area.)

Johnson's successful demand for quick action on the street-paving project gives him a "victory" to point to.

There's a price to be paid for that, though.
The project was advertised for bid on May 8, with bids opened May 31. Richard Pierson, owner of Pierson Construction, one of the three bidders, says this window didn't give a lot of time for anyone to really look at the project and the plans and figure out the real costs. Pierson says that means he had to bid higher to take care of contingencies he did not have time to spot. And he expects that the other bidders did likewise.

The city received three bids, though one was withdrawn because the company said it had made a math error. That left Wheeler Construction Co. with the low bid of more than $1.7 million, almost $237,000 higher than estimated by the city's own engineer.

Wheeler got the go-ahead on July 12, with instructions to be done by October 27. Bob Johnson, Wheeler's vice president, says that finish date means higher costs for him because he will have to pay overtime for construction crews. He says, though, he can recoup some of that cost because he doesn't have to rent barricades and pay for an off-duty police officer to direct traffic for as many days.

Costs aside, the main reason Dunlap Avenue wasn't scheduled for reconstruction until next year was that its new storm sewers are supposed to drain into the Arizona Canal Diversion Channel. But the channel's segment through Sunnyslope hasn't even been put out for bids yet, and the contractor is going to plug up the sewer outlet. Once the drains fill up, says city transportation chief Jim Matteson, the water will wind up on Central Avenue.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Fischer