October 31, 2014

Public Projects

Could Be Better

Rising costs put a hitch in Better Jacksonville Plan.

Bob Snell | 7/1/2005
A large vacant lot at the corner of Clay and Monroe streets has become a metaphor for the present state of the Better Jacksonville Plan. The parcel was supposed to be home to the most expensive and lavish edifice in the $2.2-billion public works initiative -- a new county courthouse. Instead, Mayor John Peyton recently put the courthouse project on indefinite hold until he can cut tens of millions of dollars from the project's ballooning budget.

Similar cost-cutting exercises are being carried out across the 800-square-mile city as the Peyton administration struggles to complete dozens of road improvement projects promised by the mayor's predecessor and architect of the Better Jacksonville Plan, John Delaney, who's now president of the University of North Florida. Neighborhood objections have delayed a number of road projects, but most of the plan's troubles can be traced to rising land and material costs that weren't accounted for when voters approved the initiative in 2000.

The courthouse price tag has shot up more than $100 million.

While Peyton has grumbled about the mess left by the previous administration, the first-term mayor has pledged to finish as many projects as the city can afford. Peyton says he's mindful that when voters approved a half-cent increase in the local option sales tax, they also endorsed a long list of projects that touch virtually every neighborhood in the city. (Delaney did not return phone calls for comment.)

To its credit, the Better Jacksonville Plan has brought new life to the city's long-struggling downtown. A new civic center and minor league baseball stadium have become popular attractions, and an expanded main library is set to open soon. In other parts of the city, streets and highways have been repaved and expanded.

The courthouse, however, is another matter. Never one of the plan's most popular items, it was pitched as a state-mandated replacement for the drab and crumbling building that occupies several acres of prime real estate along the St. Johns River. Delaney originally budgeted $190 million -- a price tag that shot to an estimated $320 million once Peyton took office.

As public opposition to a more expensive courthouse grew, Peyton pledged to hold the project to its original budget. When a mayoral task force recently proposed several new design options (all costing more than $300 million) Peyton called a news conference to reject his committee's findings.

"We only have $201 million to spend... and that's all we'll spend," Peyton said. The courthouse "may be a luxury we just can't afford."

While pledging to hold the line on the courthouse, Peyton acknowledges that more money will have to be raised to pay for dozens of road projects. The mayor's office estimates the city will need an additional $660 million -- a 44% increase in the plan's original $1.5-billion budget. Barring a state-financed bailout -- Peyton has asked Gov. Jeb Bush for help -- the mayor says numerous road projects will be delayed, scaled back or eliminated.

Tags: Politics & Law, Northeast, Government/Politics & Law

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