Mayor cites challenges with finishing projects | News

Tahlequah city officials are facing a few dilemmas when it comes to completing the remaining projects funded by a bond issue voters passed in 2013.

The Tahlequah Bond Improvement Fund passed in January 2013, and most projects have been completed or are currently underway. Voters approved $22 million for improvements, and the city has wrapped up two street renovation projects on Bluff Avenue and West Fourth Street.

The bond issue included close to $10 million for street projects; Fourth Street, Bluff Avenue, East Allen Road, North Grand Avenue, North Cedar Road, South Muskogee Avenue, and Bluff Avenue.

The Bluff Avenue Project extended from Downing Street to First Street, where curbs and guttering were added to each side of the street to improve the storm drainage system. The cost of the project was initially estimated to be $846,000, but ended up exceeding the original contract amount by $100,000.

West Fourth Street was widened from a two-lane to a three-lane, with a sidewalk added, and the project came in at $2.8 million.

In 2019, Mayor Sue Catron said the city was nearly bankrupt when she took office, so she formed an advisory group to help her assess financial modifications for the projects. The group included three bankers, a certified public accountant, former City Treasurer Lanny Williams, and Ward 3 Councilor Stephen Highers.

“This committee was not formed to study bond project modifications, but rather to assist me in assessing financial modifications that would be required and to provide their opinions as to how best address some of the challenges,” said Catron. “Among the challenges discussed with the group was how to bridge the gap between what had been promised to the voters who supported the 2013 bond issuance, and the limited funds remaining to complete those projects.”

Initially, the bond projects were running far under budget, but Catron said said that may not be the case today. As of April, that fund still contained $4,780,298.

Catron said the initial priority was completion of South Muskogee Avenue and North Cedar Avenue in 2020. However, she explained that she found several problems with those projects.

“We were told that all of the right-of-way and plans were in place for North Cedar. Only two or three right-of-way parcels were still to be acquired for South Muskogee, and those plans were almost complete,” she said.

Catron said she found out plans for South Muskogee Avenue were only 60 percent finished, and there were 13 parcels to be acquired once utility movement requirements were taken into consideration.

“Because we knew there is not enough remaining money in the 2013 bond fund to complete these two projects and the other two remaining street projects — East Allen Road and North Grand Avenue — our plan was to focus on Muskogee, which would be the most expensive. That would then give us the amount remaining to be allocated between the latter three projects,” the mayor said.

The City Council gave its nod to Guy Engineering for right-of-way acquisition for work on South Muskogee Avenue in 2020. Catron said plans for the project are currently being updated by the firm.

The goal was to have five lanes, with a middle lane dedicated for turns, and a sidewalk on the west side of the roadway.

“The plans have progressed to the point that right-of-way needs could be determined and surveyed. Acquisition efforts have begun and are projected to be complete later this calendar year,” Catron said. “Once the right-of-way is in place, relocation of utilities will begin, with road construction proper starting after mid-year 2022.”

The last right-of-way parcel for North Cedar Avenue was acquired in March, and utility work will begin later in the summer, with construction immediately following.

“Updated cost estimates from the engineers for the two projects give us confidence both projects can be completed with our remaining bond funds. It will be tight, but it can be done,” said Catron.

Officials are now faced with the challenge of accomplishing the two remaining projects on East Allen Road and North Grand Avenue.

“We are looking at alternatives and will be talking about those options with the community,” said Catron.

Funds from the bond were also used for the city’s updates with the skate park, the history trail expansion, and the all-inclusive handicap-accessible park at Anthis-Brennan Sports Complex.

CEI, Crittenden Enterprises began work the sidewalk construction along Choctaw Street. Completion could take up to four weeks, depending on weather.

What’s next

Part 2 of this series will run in the Friday, May 28 edition of TDP.

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