Opinion: Questioning the Camas Roundabout

Camas resident John Ley shares his research into the $8 million Camas Lake Road/Everett Roundabout

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in this report are those of the author alone and do not reflect the editorial position of ClarkCountyToday.com

By John Ley

In a previous column regarding government spending in the era of COVID-19 and the shutdown of our economy, I asked why state and local governments weren’t cutting costs? We knew taxpayer “revenue,” taxes paid to the government, are in decline. I offered praise for the city of Camas that “put on hold” the construction of an $8 million roundabout. I hoped it was a first step in fiscal prudence, with more belt tightening to come. Sadly, I was wrong. By April 15, the  construction was allowed to proceed.

John Ley
John Ley

So much for fiscal conservatism and prudence.

This caused me to dig deeper into the Camas roundabout. What I have learned is stunning. Consultants are getting 25 percent of the $8 million total cost. A $2 million roundabout was recommended as a cheaper alternative to a $5 million lane addition. A half dozen other roundabouts have been built for $2 million to $3 million in the area.

Vetting the proposal

A review of city documents provided an amazing discovery. In 2012, a taxpayer funded consultant analyzed the Lake-Everett (SR 500) intersection. It was part of a broader 2035 transportation needs study for the city, in preparation for the development of the Northshore of Lacamas Lake. DKS Associates recommended a $2 million roundabout as the cheaper alternative for Lake-Everett.  They indicated a $5 million lane addition option was “extremely costly.”

On page 35 of the 58 page DKS document was the following: DKS indicates a new third lane on Everett would address the capacity deficiency. However it would be “extremely costly, potentially more than $5 million.” Instead, DKS recommended a roundabout for $2 million.

“Due to a bridge immediately north of the intersection, the addition of an additional southbound lane (which would address the capacity deficiency) would be extremely costly, potentially more than $5 million,” the DKS document stated.

Yet today, Camas is spending $8 million for a roundabout. Sadly, the bridge just north of that intersection hasn’t been addressed. The city expects replacing the bridge will cost over $9 million. That two-lane bridge (without shoulders), is the real bottleneck and limiting factor on Everett St. (SR 500).

What is the cost of a roundabout?

During a citizen town hall and open house, staff mentioned Camas had spent $2 million on the roundabout at 6th and Northwood. This is the entrance/exit to SR-14. Roundabouts can be done inexpensively.

Image courtesy of Google Maps

Washougal recently built two roundabouts on SR-14 for $4.4 million, or $2.2 million each. Camas city staff provided me a cost comparison of various roundabouts.

Graphic courtesy of city of Camas

You’ll note the $2.3 million for a 2017 roundabout and $4.4 million for two roundabouts in 2019.

One year earlier

At a Feb. 19, 2019 city council workshop, PBS Consultant Greg Jellison laid out seven options for the intersection. There were three “signal” options, three “roundabout” options, and a “no-build” option. The consultant told the members of the Camas City Council his firm had not yet finished its cost estimates. Yet the next week, Camas was hosting its first open house for citizens.

During the presentation, the consultant asked the council “do any of these criteria have a higher priority than others?”  He went on to ask: “maybe safety, the schedule, the impact to the existing bridge, the cost? Is there anything that stands out to you that maybe is a higher priority?” He later added: “we want to hear if anything is a higher priority.”

Three different times, he solicited the council’s “higher priority.” Unbelievably, there was no response by the mayor or city council. One member wanted to know what the people thought before she went public with her opinion.

Don’t forget that in the middle of this process, the Camas City Council made a hasty decision to put a $78 million pool bond on the ballot. In Nov. 2019, the outrageous proposal was rejected by nearly 90 percent of Camas voters. Additionally, a write-in candidate unseated the incumbent mayor in the November general election.

Three open house events were held over the next 11 months. I attended the final one on Jan. 23, 2020. Costs of the various options were never mentioned, as the city and their highly paid consultant presented their final choice. Citizens had to ask about the funding, i.e. how much was borrowed, and what the terms of the loan were.

On March 16, members of the Camas City Council approved a contract for $5,269,528.33 to construct a roundabout at Lake Rd & Everett. Included in the council resolution, was approval for “up to 10%” in cost overruns — $526,952.

The staff document dated March 2, 2020 showed a total cost of $8.1 million.

Graphic courtesy of city of Camas

More amazingly, staff recommended the “consultant” firm PBS Engineering be awarded a 75 percent increase in their fee, adding $848,374 to the cost of the project. Not a single question was asked by the mayor or a city council member regarding this huge increase.

Graphic courtesy of city of Camas

How on earth can a consultant be paid nearly 25 percent of an $8 million construction contract?

Here is the graphic of the Lake-Everett roundabout proposal. Graphic courtesy of city of Camas

During the March 16 City Council deliberations, there was almost no discussion about the project before the council unanimously approved the $5.2-million contract with Clark and Sons of Battle Ground. Fortunately, Council Member Bonnie Carter asked that the agenda item be removed from the Consent Agenda. Otherwise, it would have been approved in a single vote covering multiple items.

During the discussion, Councilor Carter didn’t say anything. That is curious, as one would normally assume the person making the request had questions to ask, or comments to enter into the public record, before the vote. Councilor Don Cheney indicated he’d never seen anything “vetted as thorough” as this project.

Funding issues

How does the city council expect to pay for the $8 million roundabout? Other than a $3.3-million grant from the state, they borrowed all the money. They haven’t saved any funds to pay for the project. They didn’t have a “down payment,” which is what citizens generally do when buying a home or a new car. The taxpayers portion is all on a credit card.

From the handout offered at the Jan. 23 open house.

“The City received a $1 million low-interest loan from the Public Works Board for the initial design and pre-construction. For construction, approximately $3.3 million in funding comes from a Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) grant, and the remaining approximately $3.7 million from a low-interest loan from the Public Works Board.”

Yes, that totals $4.7 million in borrowed money our taxes will have to pay back.

Fixing the bridge is too expensive?

Just north of the Lake Rd/Everett intersection, is a two-lane bridge crossing the water connection between Lacamas Lake and Round Lake. The state has mandated it be raised by roughly seven feet to better allow floating debris to pass under the bridge during high water situations.

So why not one, complete project?

From the city’s FAQ document at the Jan. 23 open house:

“Why was replacement of the existing bridge north of the Lake Road/Everett Street intersection not included? It should all be fixed now, not later. It comes down to funding and timing. A bridge replacement is anticipated to more than double the construction cost and construction time of the project. Per the community survey, a timely remedy for the congestion problem is strongly preferred by the community. The City has acquired the funds for the intersection improvements. However, the City anticipates that it would take much longer to acquire funding for the bridge replacement, which would stall the entire project significantly.”

That means the city currently expects to have to spend roughly $10 million to elevate and replace the bridge. They said: “double.”

Camas citizens and taxpayers need to understand that the $8 million roundabout is just one part of a much larger transportation issue on Everett — SR-500. Replacing that bridge will likely be a 4-lane wide bridge, potentially with sidewalks and perhaps bike lanes. It will not be cheap. While we would hope the state would pay a portion of the cost, (since it is State Route 500), Camas taxpayers could be on the hook for the majority of it.

The city has chosen to take two bites of the apple. Fix the Lake-Everett interchange now and replace the bridge choke-point  later. What is the cost of that decision? We don’t know. We don’t know the cost of each of the six options shown on a city handout. It may or may not be a smart choice. But we do know we are now on the hook for an extremely expensive $8 million roundabout, with a consultant getting nearly $2 million for this boondoggle.

Camas citizens need cost-efficient transportation solutions, first and foremost. Taxpayer transportation dollars are scarce and getting scarcer. Our community has many transportation needs.

The city is pushing the development of the Northshore of Lacamas Lake. They propose closing Leadbetter Rd., which traverses the north side of the lake. How much will a new series of roads and infrastructure cost? The 2012 DKS planning document estimated $62 million for roads. With the city spending four times the DKS suggested $2 million on the roundabout, it is likely the Northshore development could cost taxpayers over $200 million.

The citizens should be told and fully understand the complete picture, including the costs and ramifications of those choices. Especially in the COVID-19 era, when our economy has ground to a halt, with record levels of unemployment.

For now, it appears the “extremely costly” $5 million added lane would have been a bargain compared to the $8 million roundabout. Of course, if the city hadn’t paid consultants nearly $2 million, this outrageously expensive project might only be ridiculously expensive. Especially when the city had designed and built several other roundabouts in the recent past.

John Ley is a Camas resident who is an advocate for responsive and responsible government.