A new scandal has emerged just west of the Flint River. Plans for a proposed bus transfer station, which recently swelled in price from less than $2.3 million to $9 million, are rooted in indignity, including false statements by transportation officials, a descendant of Albany founder Nelson Tift says in a federal complaint.
By Kevin Hogencamp
John Sherman, who owns properties near a proposed downtown bus transfer station, smells a rat. Actually, nine of them – including erroneous environmental assessment data collection, false statements by federal staffers, and withholding of public information by the City of Albany, Sherman said.
Sherman — a descendent of Albany founder Nelson Tift – documented his concerns in a Sept. 15 complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation that is copied to Vice President Joe Biden. Meanwhile, John Rivers — a financially troubled architect who is spearheading an effort to have local and federal taxpayers foot the majority of the proposed $16 million renovation of the former Heritage House hotel on West Oglethorpe — purports to have a hand in the bus station project.
Buoyed by the prospect of federal aid, Albany officials have planned a new bus station or the renovation of the existing West Oglethorpe Boulevard transfer facility for nearly a decade. In July, the project got a surprising and massive shot in the arm when the Georgia Department of Transportation announced that it had secured $9 million in federal stimulus funding for what would be the largest multimodal transportation center in the state. The announcement stunned city commissioners and city staffers, who had established a $2.275 million budget for the project – along with Sherman, the great-great-grandson of Nelson Tift, who founded Albany in 1836.
Sherman owns properties at 319-227 N. Washington St. adjacent to the proposed bus station site behind the county courthouse between Roosevelt and Flint avenues and Washington and Jackson streets. In the DOT complaint, Sherman said through Albany attorney Alfred N. Corriere, the city of Albany and state and federal transportation officials “failed to follow the procedures and/or policies outlined in the applicable environmental regulations” and approved federal funding “based upon an inadequate and fatally flawed environmental assessment.”
Corriere, who also represents Sherman Timberlands Inc. in the matter, said that the environmental assessment was “apparently done simply to qualify for federal and/or state stimulus funds without any real regard as to the serious environmental issues this site presents.” In addition to environmental regulations, the project hasn’t passed National Historic Preservation Act muster, either, as Sherman’s property includes a structure that was built in 1885, Corriere said.
“Those buildings are now the oldest commercial structure remaining in Albany in private ownership …” Corrier said in his complaint. “The study fails to even identify or acknowledge the existence of additional privately owned adjacent commercial properties on this block, much less to identify those uses and how those uses and properties may be negatively impacted by this facility.
Meanwhile, Sherman’s concerns about the bus station project not only were ignored during the approval process, transportation officials lied by saying that no public comments were received, Corriere said.
“Simply put,” Corriere says in the complaint, “this environmental assessment is inadequate for the purposes for which it was prepared, and its lack of specific in-depth analysis involving so many issues would be a public embarrassment to the City of Albany …
“It is shocking to realize that this obviously fatally flawed environmental document was so readily accepted without question by the state and the U.S. Departments of Transportation, which then provided millions of dollars in federal funds for this project, when its inadequacies as identified and discussed by my clients in the attached should so easily have been identified and become apparent. If this low standard for (environmental) compliance is the basis on which federal stimulus dollars are to be distributed nationwide, much environmental harm will result.”
The Georgia DOT says the 2,500-square-foot “multimodal center” is expected to open in 2011. Its benefits, the DOT said, include providing a terminal for future passenger rail service and advanced technologies in the areas of safety, security, ticket vending and passenger amenities.
In announcing that $9 million had been secured for the project, Georgia DOT Commissioner Vance C. Smith Jr. said the project “has received all necessary state and federal funding and environmental clearances. Selection of a design firm is expected to occur as soon as August.”
But before the announcement, financially troubled Columbus architect John Rivers purported to be involved in the bus station project before the announcement. Indeed, a drawing of the Albany transportation project has been posted on his firm’s Website, jira-architects.com, for more than six months. Meanwhile, Rivers and North Carolina businessman Romeo Comeau are proposing to use $16 million in federal economic stimulus funds to redevelop the dilapidated Heritage House hotel on West Oglethorpe Boulevard.
Both Rivers and Comeau have liens filed against them in Muscogee County, and public records show that the two defaulted on taxes they owed on commercial property in Columbus from which Rivers was evicted for nonpayment. Meanwhile, Rivers has a $49,786 judgment against him in a business dispute with Harlan A. Price, a former Columbus architect who now practices in Fortson.
Rivers also is indebted to the state of Georgia for failure to pay unemployment contributions for employees. The city of Albany has been assisting Rivers and Comeau for several months, and City Manager Alfred Lott is now advocating leveraging Albany taxes to help the men obtain federal funds to rehabilitate the Heritage House.
Lott, who won’t say when he learned that ousted downtown manager Don Buie was a convicted felon, refuses to say whether background checks were performed on Comeau and Rivers before the city began assisting them.