COLUMBIA, SC — This summer, before work can get started on $85 million in dirt-road paving and suburban resurfacing projects, Richland County Council has to decide which roads to do first.
Will a citizen watchdog committee, appointed to monitor progress on the county’s penny projects, have a voice in ranking the projects?
“I’ve been very clear ... they don’t,” Councilman Jim Manning said recently.
“I thought that’s what they would do,” countered Councilman Greg Pearce.
The role of the citizen committee became an issue earlier this month when some members objected to County Council’s decision to hire a Kentucky-based firm as the county’s program manager – a simple name with a big job when it comes to getting the new transportation program off the ground.
The program management team will do preliminary design work, buy rights of-way, construct and inspect some $769 million in road and pedestrian-oriented projects funded by a local sales tax.
Some watchdog committee members said the public expected the county to pick the team with the highest goals for hiring subcontractors with small, local and minority firms. Voters had been promised money from a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation improvements would benefit the local economy, they said.
The formal name of the committee is the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, or TPAC, but they are commonly called the watchdog committee.
Manning said TPAC members “were a little full of themselves” if they thought they had the right to know every detail that went into the decision to hire ICA Engineering as the county’s program development team.
“They seem to be coming across like they should have everything I have as a council member, and they’re in charge,” Manning said. “I know they don’t want to hear it, but that’s crazy. We don’t empower anybody like that.”
Manning views TPAC’s role as ensuring the county spends proceeds from the transportation tax as promised. “What they should’ve been upset about was if we were fooling around and weren’t getting a project management team” on board, he said.
Council chairman Norman Jackson said he views TPAC’s role as being much like the planning commission, which makes recommendations that the council either must follow or justify why it chooses a different course.
Hayes Mizell, chairman of the watchdog committee and a former school board trustee, said the group is still figuring out how to function.
The council has not given clear “marching orders,” Mizell said, and it’s natural that staff would rather not fool with an advisory committee.
“So it is up to us to raise issues when we identify them, and try to hammer out a role,” he said.
While there’s a general mission statement for the committee, Mizell said, it doesn’t lay out specific duties, such as whether the committee will help rank projects. He hopes the group will be allowed that role.
The county set aside $45 million for dirt-road paving and another $40 million for resurfacing suburban streets. It compiled lists of the roads that would be addressed with proceeds from the sales tax, but did not rank them.
That’s key, since finishing all the work will take a decade under the county’s current plan.
Members of the 15-member TPAC were selected by each of the local governments affected by the penny projects. Richland County Council then added two council members as non-voting members, boosting the committee to 17.
Rob Perry, transportation director, said he would expect to work with the program management team and Richland County Council’s transportation committee to rank the projects. His next stop would be the TPAC, where members could raise questions to prompt changes to the list.
“Nowhere in their mission statement does it say they can change priorities,” Perry said. “But they can ask questions.”
The council put safety as its top consideration in ranking projects, followed by a project’s potential for economic development and then practical considerations, such as whether the county already owns the needed right-of-way and the design is complete.
TPAC member Elise Bidwell said she’ll recommend the committee change its name from the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee to something that better conveys its role – a group without authority yet assigned to watch what’s going on and make recommendations based on what members hear from people in their communities.
Still, it’s a new form of oversight for Richland County, Bidwell said, “so it’s growing pains, and we’re all learning.”
Penny project design firms
To speed construction and spread the work around, Richland County will hire five engineering firms as “on-call” engineers to design transportation projects.
The selection process gives small, local and minority firms extra points.
The Transportation Penny Advisory Committee (TPAC) wants to join the discussion when council members review applications for the “on-call” engineers Feb. 3. It has asked the council to allow Elise Bidwell, a financial adviser, and Bill Wiseman, a construction-management executive, to be non-voting participants at Richland County Council’s transportation committee meeting.
Twenty-two firms have applied for the five contracts. The winning firms would share $30 million over the next five years, earning about $6 million each, county transportation director Rob Perry said.
Among the applicants is Columbia-based CECS, the No. 2 finisher for another highly competitive contract to manage the entire $1.07 billion transportation improvement plan.
The council chose ICA Engineering, headquartered in Kentucky. CECS protested.
The unusual protest, which remains unresolved, could delay work on the county’s massive program to address roads, public transit and trails.
The full council is expected to award the “on-call” contracts Feb. 4
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.