Could Modesto flush $250K down the toilet?

jjardine@modbee.comMay 18, 2013 

— Whenever government builds or rebuilds something, you wonder, "Why does it always cost so much?"

The city of Modesto wants to renovate the public men's and women's restrooms at the transit center on Ninth Street downtown. The cost estimate — as much as a four-bedroom home.

Built in 1915 as the Southern Pacific Train Depot, the station became the city, county and Greyhound bus hub after a $6.2 million restoration and expansion in 1993.

Twenty years later, the restrooms in the depot need revamping again. The city hired Commercial Architects Inc. of Modesto to do the redesign and produce a cost estimate.

The restrooms, architect Ted Brandvold said, need to be heavy duty.

"I spent some time in those restrooms," he said. "There's an amazing amount of traffic in there, the use they get. It is a major project."

The work, Brandvold said, will involve tearing up the floors after a video camera found problems in the drainage lines. The plumbing in the walls needs to be replaced, which in turn means new tile throughout. The ventilation system needs work and the rooms need to be brought up to code to improve disabled access.

To limit vandalism, the restrooms will get "prison grade" stainless steel sinks, toilets and urinals. I found such fixtures online. Some are listed as vandalism and-or suicide resistant and can cost $1,300 to $2,200 each — not exactly dealbreakers.

"We went the extra step, essentially to make it bullet-proof," Brandvold said.

Dope-proof, too, and I don't mean pipe dope.

"People flush drug paraphernalia down the toilets and plug up the lines," city Public Works Director Dennis Turner said.

If these fixtures can withstand the San Quentin crowd, certainly they're sturdy enough for the upstanding folks of Modesto, and even for those who aren't quite so bursting with civic pride.

The architect's estimate? $250,000, or $636 per square foot for the 393-square-foot project. That's a lot of money, considering it doesn't include the architect's fee of $20,000-plus.

Indeed, $250,000 seems pricey, considering you can find 25 homes in Modesto listed at $245,000 to $255,000, one with six bedrooms and four — count 'em, four — bathrooms.

Skepticism, or at least a watchful eye, is a good thing. A few years ago, the city wanted to spend $343,000 to add an ADA-compliant service window on the second floor. It already had two wheelchair-accessible windows. Just move a table, and voila! After a Bee reporter wrote about it, the City Council nixed it.

Conversely, the city recently looked into acquiring some small buildings to house materials, Turner said. When the quotes came back ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 apiece, officials said "no." Too much for so little in storage space.

In this case, the transit center's restrooms really do need upgrading. The city will put the project out to bid. A representative from a local construction firm with experience in public projects told me the company has been tracking bids versus architects' estimates for years. Before the recession began in 2006 or so, contractors' bids routinely came in 15 percent to 20 percent higher than the architects' estimates.

Since then, though, bids routinely come in roughly 30 percent to 40 percent less than the architects' projections.

"Nobody really knows what it's going to cost till it goes to bid," he said.

Because the city will use federal grant money to pay for the transit center restroom job, prevailing wage rules apply, meaning higher labor costs than what contractors might pay on nonpublic jobs.

So is $250,000 too much to remodel a couple of public potties?

"It does seem like it," Turner said. "It's a challenge for us to be sure the facilities are usable, without spending an exorbitant amount of money on it. I can assure you we won't do it unless we get the best public value for it."

Otherwise, it could be taxpayer money down the — well, you know … .

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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