The Helena City Commission recently awarded the initial $2.6 million phase of its Rodney Street reconstruction project to Helena Sand & Gravel.
The first phase of the overhaul includes the installation of new asphalt, curb, gutters, sidewalks, sewer mains and water mains on Rodney Street from Broadway Street to Ninth Avenue for a total cost of $2,616,696.
The project will also see the removal of the traffic signal at the intersection of Rodney Street and Sixth Avenue and the replacement of the flashing beacon at Eighth Avenue with a rapid flashing beacon.
"This project will replace the aging utility infrastructure and the aging street, providing a better driving surface for all modes of transportation," Helena Transportation Systems Director David Knoepke told the City Commission prior to the vote.
Helena Sand & Gravel's bid, which was the lone bid on the project, came in about $80,000 below the city engineering department's initial estimate.
Knoepke said the project is funded in the city's current budget, but that forthcoming federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package recently passed by Congress, could help offset some of the project's cost.
About half of the cost is associated with the replacement of sewer and water mains, which the stimulus package is intended in part to help municipalities pay for amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We were told we could use at least some of the ARPA funds specifically for water and I believe waste water," City Commissioner Andres Haladay said. "If we can use federal dollars that are coming in on this project and move those other dollars elsewhere for critical needs in our system, we should definitely be doing that before we go ahead and spend these."
City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk said there is some concern about supplanting those already budgeted local funds with the federal aid.
"The definition of those (federal) funds hasn't been fully vetted," Knoepke added.
With the city receiving only one bid on the substantial project, there is some concern among city staff and leadership about the ability of the city to receive competitive bids on future projects.
"Is that surprising given that this is a pretty significant project for Helena?," City Commissioner Heather O'Loughlin asked Knoepke. "I'm just curious like what that's telling us about construction in the City of Helena and the extent to which we'll be able to get bids moving forward."
Knoepke said neighboring municipalities have also voiced concerns regarding apathy with requests for proposals, but he gave no explanation.
"We were hoping for additional bids," he said. "It's a little concerning for us as far as moving projects farther into the construction season on whether or not those will actually be able to get constructed with the limited construction season that we all know we have in Montana."
Knoepke said that with the project fully funded, "we can get started on construction as soon as possible."
The massive facelift to one of the city's oldest thoroughfares has been in the works for nearly five years, and Haladay said he is excited to see a bid finally be awarded.
"People have been asking when Rodney was gonna get done in this city for years," he said. "It just goes to show how long it can take to get a project from zero to fully bid, and we'll cross our fingers it gets done sometime in the near future."
City staff is already soliciting public comment on the second phase of the project, a massive undertaking planned for Rodney Street from Ninth Avenue to Helena Avenue tentatively set for the summer of 2022.
The first "virtual open house" was held April 14. A presentation delivered at the open house is available to view on the city's website (https://www.helenamt.gov/public-works-projects). Two additional public hearings on the project have yet to be scheduled.