Concerns about false information provided by Albany and state officials have prompted the federal government to withdraw its $7 million in funding for a proposed downtown bus station complex, but the project could be resurrected, public records show.
Clearly, public records show, city and state officials conspired to inaccurately present a flawed environmental assessment, incomplete historical-preservation data, and false public-participation information to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration. It is unclear, though, whether the scheme was due to government officials’ ineptness or due to additional corrupt activity at city hall. Indeed, as in the case of indicted downtown manager Don Buie, Albany City Manager Alfred Lott refuses to offer an explanation or apology for the municipal government’s transgressions.
The FTA’s withdrawal of funding for a $9 million bus transfer and “multimodal” transportation facility occurred because of an extensively researched Sept. 15 complaint filed by adjacent landowner John Sherman, the great-great-grandson of Albany founder Nelson Tift. Community transportation advocate Dr. Charles Gillespie also complained to the FTA.
Sherman said Tuedsay that he hasn’t gotten a response from his complaint, but that it appears that city, state and federal officials are working quietly behind the scenes – and, still, without public involvement – to proceed with the project. 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.
“Having had no direct contact from the parties involved in our complaint as to how they plan to proceed leaves us with no way of commenting on their actions,” Sherman said. “But we have been told that private strategy meetings were held between some of the parties that we were not privy to regarding how this project might be structured to proceed.
“We still believe that the environmental assessment is clearly fatally flawed and that all our comments found in our 33-page documentation are valid and all should be addressed, and not simply limited to those few mentioned by the FTA, and that an EIS is fully justified for this project. It appears that the FTA is focused only on cultural resources and the issue of public comments, but there are so many additional environmental issues that simply have not been addressed as identified and documented in our paper submitted to the appropriate agencies. And apparently they see this as only a temporary delay to completion of this project as American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds provided for this project are not being withdrawn, but rather ‘temporarily restricted.’”
The city still has more than $2 million in funding for a new bus transportation station, but not the full $9 million it recently received for an elaborate multimodal center that would accommodate passenger rail service it were ever developed in the community. The multimodal project still could be fully resurrected if accurate environmental and historical data is provided to the FTA, and if city and state officials correct its false claim that concerns were not raised about the project, according to public records.
Lott has known about the FTA’s ruling since Oct. 21, yet kept it secret from Sherman and the public. Indeed, Lott refused again Tuesday to discuss the matter or release public records pertaining to the project or the FTA ruling as required by law. If the records aren’t released Friday, Lott would be guilty of a misdemeanor crime by violating the Georgia Open Records Act. He is a frequent violator of the law, yet has never been reprimanded by the City Commission.
The FTA reviewed and approved the Environmental Assessment for the project and issued a Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI) on May 28, 2009. But after reviewing letters submitted to the FTA by Gillespie and an attorney representing Sherman, “FTA has determined there are problematic issues with the EA that will require us to rescind the previously approved FONSI,” Dr. Yvette Taylor, the FTA’s regional director, said in the Oct. 21 letter to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Although the FONSI claimed that “no comments were received” at two public meetings the regarding the environmental assessment, “several comments were received at each meeting. The EA did not address these comments,” Taylor said.
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. The city’s motive for the multimodal project is mysterious; the project is not cited in an extensively prepared regional transportation strategy. Yet, 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 Flint River is about a block from the project. Already, during times of high flow sewage in the area, sewage is permitted to dump directly into the river. Sherman said that in addition to the concerns that an objective environmental and historical-preservation analysis would reveal, the multimodal project should be halted because of these concerns: minority environmental justice; Flint River and groundwater pollution; crumbling infrastructure; endangered species, site elevation and drainage issues, economic impacts, noise impact and air-quality issues, train safety and bus schedule impacts, tax-increment financing issues, parking issues, utility and garbage access issues, and rear business access restrictions.
Sherman said the area’s lack of infrastructure would be a factor “regardless of the projects envisioned, whether it be multi-modal, parking decks or housing.”
In the federal 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.
“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.”