CEDAR RAPIDS — A City Council committee on Monday agreed to recommend that the full council formally notify the Federal Transit Administration that the city intends to return its bus operation to the flood-damaged and still-empty Ground Transportation Center depot.
The full City Council had agreed to the return to the GTC in concept in May when it threw in the towel on a plan to buy two-plus acres of downtown, a block of which would have been used to build a new Intermodal Transit Facility with the help of a decade-old federal grant.
The downtown property purchase proved too costly — an estimated $10 million to buy the property now owned by PepsiAmericas and to relocate the warehouse operation to the edge of the city.
Pat Ball, the city’s utility director, told the council’s Development Committee on Monday that formalizing the decision to go back to the GTC depot likely would meet the demand of federal transit officials, who have held up release of the city’s federal transit operating funds for now because the city has not made a formal decision on its bus depot.
The city’s bus patrons have been relegated to a temporary bus depot of modular homes in a parking lot at Second Street SE and 12th Avenue SE since the June 2008 flood.
Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit manager, presented the council committee with five options for how the GTC bus depot might operate upon the city’s return to it. Two of the options would continue to have buses pull into the depot nose-first and back out before departing, a design which the council and a city consultant previously called dangerous to bus patrons and pedestrians.
Another option calls for the closing of Fourth Avenue SE next to the bus depot, to which council member Monica Vernon, the committee’s chairwoman, said, “I don’t have the stomach to close another street.” She opposed closing Second Avenue SE to make way for the Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa’s new medical building.
Another option would require the restriction of traffic on First Street SE, which committee members didn’t like.
The preferred option of DeBrower and other city staff is a setup that would allow the buses to park almost parallel to the depot so they could depart without having to back up.
DeBrower noted that the exterior renovation cost for this option, which would include concrete work along the walkway, would cost the city about $2.645 million. However, half of that cost would come from extending the existing exterior canopies so bus patrons could exit the bus protected from the elements rather than taking the first few steps without such protection.
Council member Chuck Swore, a committee member, said delaying work on the canopies and reducing the cost for now might make sense.
Ball said the city could pursue federal grants later to try to find funds to pay to extend the canopies.
Returning to the GTC depot is something of a defeat in that it requires the city to forfeit an $8 million federal transit grant it secured a decade ago to build a new Intermodal Transit Facility. The actual loss is really about $4.5 million as the city has come to learn that it would have to repay the federal government $3.555 million for federal money spent originally on the GTC depot should the city now abandon it as a bus depot.
City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said he “wasn’t prepared to give up on those dollars” and see them transferred to another city for its use. He said the city would ask Sens. Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley and Congressman Dave Loebsack to see what of the funds the city might somehow be able to keep.
DeBrower has said that the renovation at the GTC wouldn’t occur until 2012, which means bus patrons will be using a bus depot of modular homes without any outside protection for a fourth winter later this year.
Vernon said Monday that the City Council has had a lot of flood-recovery projects and financial demands on it as she talked about the council’s decision last month to forget about a new depot and look at the options at the GTC depot.
“Life happens and a lot of things …,” she said, trailing off.