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St. Louis project a new paradigm for city’s Public Works Dept.

(Jan. 11, 2013) Despite the effects of budgetary cutbacks – both short-term and long-term – the city’s long-awaited renovation of St. Louis Avenue, according to Public Works Director Hal Adkins, is “cranking full steam right now.”

“We’re shooting to have it wrapped up by the first of May,” Adkins said.

The current work is just the first phase of reconstruction, covering 10th to 17th Street. The portion of the avenue below 10th will be done after the 2013 summer season has passed.

A renovation of St. Louis has been discussed by city officials for several years, although the initial plans for the work were considerably more grandiose than they are currently. With the goal of setting the avenue up to expand as a downtown residential neighborhood and commuter thoroughfare, City Engineer Terry McGean’s initial layout for the street featured underground cable to eliminate the use of telephone poles, as well as widened sidewalks and bicycle lanes, and a traffic circle at the First Street intersection to eliminate snarls caused by the dog-leg in the street.

However, because of budgetary constraints, the project has been continually scaled down, something that McGean previously described as a “permanent compromise solution.” This past spring, the city issued a bond of $4.5 million to cover a minimum amount of upgrades.

Key among those will be water and sewer mains, storm drains, and the installation of underground electrical conduit that could support enhanced street lights with buried cables. Originally included in the project, the lighting element was nixed by council last year over cost concerns, but may be added back into the project if grant money for the work can be procured by the Ocean City Development Corporation, the nonprofit that sponsors both public and private redevelopment efforts.

Most importantly, the street will not only be repaved, but the road bed will be dug up, backfilled, and leveled to prepare the avenue for several more decades of hard use.

Although impossible to do completely piecemeal, Adkins said he was “trying to minimize the amount of closure, where possible” along the road. Despite heavy work in the 14th and 15th Street areas, Adkins said access to the Harbor Island and Teal Drive neighborhoods would not be cut off.

Adkins had previously compared the St. Louis renovation to the 1989 reconstruction of Baltimore Avenue – in both cases, electrical conduit is installed in anticipation of future lighting improvements, an option that City Council chose for St. Louis on Adkins’ recommendation.

But what is very different between the two projects is who, exactly is doing them. The construction and excavation of St. Louis is being done under contract by George & Lynch of Dover. But in 1989, the Baltimore work was done by the city’s Public Works Department itself.

“I would, and I did all throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, tackle these projects myself,” Adkins said. His department previously featured a robust construction division, which, during the city’s boom years, rivaled the largest of private contractors.

Conveniently, however, the city’s infrastructure growth lasted about as long as the men who physically did it.

“When I came here, a lot of those guys in the construction division had already been here five or 10 years,” said Adkins, who has worked for the city for almost 30 years.

“They all reached eligibility for retirement before I had. Incidentally, that coincided with the recession, so we had to make the decision of whether to replace them or to eliminate the positions and start using more outside contractors.”

Ultimately, the city chose to let the construction division dwindle and began outsourcing the work.

“We cut that department in half, basically,” Adkins said. Fortunately, he said, the recession has also made business-starved construction firms readily available at low cost.

Retirement continues to be one of Adkins’ major hurdles. Thirty-nine percent of the wastewater and solid waste divisions will be eligible to retire in the next two years, he said. More than half of his management staff has put in more than 30 years with the city.

“None of them are leading me to believe that they have any interest in leaving, at least immediately,” Adkins said. Regardless, the next several years will inevitably see a high amount of turnover in staff that manages the city’s core services.

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