“Getting through the FTA process and getting a full-funding grant agreement (FFGA) in a new city that had not had one before was daunting,” Tober says. “I mean to go all the way through that process added about a year and a half on to our development process. If it had been faster, we would have been open.
“It’s a rough process these days — the tightening up of the evaluation criteria, the focus on cost-effectiveness.
“I think we were the first project that then Administrator Jenna Dorn nailed us with a FFGA number that was at the end of preliminary engineering. And we were only at a 30 percent design level at that point in time. And that’s what they started holding us to, our FFGA number, because that’s what they had sent up to the Hill most recently.
“Now that’s the policy at the end of PE, but everybody is trying to get up to 50 or 60 percent design level. We were only at 30. I objected to that strenuously and so did our Republican mayor, but we were told take what you can get. So we were new and as a new city and so we took what we could get and we got. So that was a problem.
Tober also points to the risk assessments process as one of the things that slowed down the project. As one of the first properties to go through the process, they were operating in the virtual unknown and it ended up costing them time and money.
“The risk assessments has the potential to be a good tool, but frankly it gave us a false sense of security on some things right at the time when steel and cement prices were going up and we got the wind taken out of us when we got those first bids in. I’m not sure that doing four risk assessments, which is what we’ve gone through, is justified, you know in terms of cost and expense, that it provided that kind of value,” Tober says.
Tober admits that one of the problems they faced is the project manager oversight program, which he feels has somewhat lost its way.
“The program, instead of, from our perspective, and I’ve talked to several of my peers around the country, I’m probably going to regret these words but… From my perspective what used to be an advisory process for the local grantee, the project sponsor and from the FTA has become more and more where the project management oversight consultants (PMOCs) are trying to direct work, tell us what to do rather than saying you might want to consider doing this,” Tober says.
“The amount of time and staff effort that gets invested in dealing with the PMOCs is substantial. And one of the things that has happened to us here is we started the project with one firm, [then] it got changed in the middle to another firm. So we had set some things up in the project management plans with the first PMOC’s advice and started to move down those roads and you get another set of people that come in and say well we don’t think that’s the way you ought to do it, so you need to change it like this.
“And the FTA staff said go ahead and change it. So we changed that. And then about a year later the initial staff that that PMOC brought in on the project left and a whole ‘nother group came in. They hired new people and they had different ideas.
“Now we’re well into the finishing off and bidding and construction process. So now we get different views on what our quality assurance program should be, how we should be approaching certain issues,” Tober says.
Tober says that the mercurial process cost them and their construction managers time and money — a lot of money.
“Here again, you know it’s one thing to be advisory and for them to be looking out to make sure that the FTA and the taxpayers’ interests are being looked at,” Tober says.
“That’s fine, but this constant request of risk assessments, reports, changing requirements, not consistent application of program guidelines. Really, it’s cost us a lot of grief here.”
Making a Change
The new light rail line CATS plans to have in operation in November has been planned from the ground up to improve the entire area it rolls through. According to Tober it has changed everything in the area from the development pattern to the tax base and the demographics.