ON A SLOW TRACK nAmtrak official talks about future work at station. A6-7 nElected officials hopped on Amtrak to get project moving. A10
Maintenance work was put off at station Costs and complaint grew and grew Local officials join up to get work done Federal agencies take too long for approvals Maintenance work was put off at station Costs and complaint grew and grew Local officials By Chip Smedley, and Gil Smart, Staff Writers
To walk into the Lancaster Amtrak station is to step back in time.
And the station, built in 1929, really shows its age.
From the platform, commuters ascend a rusty, oft-painted iron and concrete staircase and emerge into a concourse replete with peeling and cracked paint. Electrical outlets and conduits dangle precariously near platform doors -- though wooden benches have at least been refinished, and new trash receptacles installed.
Beyond the concourse, the grand main hall boasts ornate high ceilings, where chunks of broken plaster threaten to fall on commuters' heads. The bathrooms just off the main hall have grubby and pitted flooring; in the corner of the men's bathroom stands a traffic cone more gray with grime than orange.
Down the steps toward the main doors facing McGovern Avenue, commuters may notice two small retail spaces flanking the foot of the staircase. Neither is occupied; one needs a lot more work before a tenant could even consider moving in.
With some exceptions, the station looks like the one Lancaster commuters have known for years.
But would you believe that 13 years, and $14.2 million in federal, state and local money, have been spent fixing up the place?
Local leaders are frustrated. Amtrak, which has begun to refurbish the interior, and some county officials point out that the original plan to renovate the train station included a new roof, a new HVAC system, new lights and paint on track platforms -- but no work on the interior.
Finger-pointing and acrimony have come to dominate the project; some local officials refuse to go on the record because it's become so politically sensitive. But there's broad agreement that bureaucratic red tape, and a lack of definitive leadership, have crippled the effort.
Funding was scarce, and even when available, the process of securing it was almost unimaginably complex. Simple change orders -- work added or deleted from the original project plan -- can take months before every government entity involved in the project signs off. Amtrak has moved at a glacial pace -- but the agency has also been made into a scapegoat for problems it didn't cause.
There might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Amtrak has completed some work on the Capstone project, which will improve the station interior, and some officials say the agency seems to be stepping up the pace. Work on the main hall -- plastering and painting -- is scheduled to be bid in March. Other work should be completed by then.
But given the project's history, few are counting on it.
"I'm not confident the work will be completed by then," said Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry. But, he added: "While we often get maddened by the details and delays, we should never lose sight of the fact that that building and the services it provides offer a tremendous value to the county."
The renovation project was originally conceived in 1999. But even though plans and designs were developed, work did not start until 2009, when all the necessary funding was finally put into place.
In the interim, Amtrak -- knowing the project was planned -- deferred maintenance on the building. As a result, the roof developed leaks -- which Amtrak officials say caused the interior paint and plaster to deteriorate.
"It wasn't until we put the new roof on that we realized the extent of the water damage that occurred under the old roof," said Marilyn Jamison, senior director in Amtrak's department of major project partnerships, policy and development, who oversaw the completion of the project.
Many officials assumed that renovations would necessarily include interior work. But those familiar with the original plans knew better.
"It's understandable that people would make that assumption," said Terry Kauffman, chairman of the Lancaster County Transportation Authority, who in 1999 was in his last year as a county commissioner. "You have to realize, this all began before the current county commissioners were elected; it began two mayors ago, two governors ago."
Work finally began in summer 2009. Wiring and plumbing was ripped out and replaced, asbestos removed. Five new heating/ventilating/air conditioning units and the accompanying ductwork were installed. The roof was replaced. Building codes required the installation of a new fire-suppressant sprinkler system. The basement had to be completely gutted to accommodate the construction of facilities used by the 100 Amtrak employees who work out of the building.
"We had to build an entirely new structure inside that existing building," Kauffman said. But the problem was that the station could not be closed to do the work, because trains and commuters still needed to utilize it.
As a result, some of the work could only occur during the five hours the station is closed -- midnight to 5 a.m.
"Any work being done near the catenary [overhead wires that power the trains] could only take place when power was shut off to the wires," said Amtrak's Jamison.
"It's difficult to get much work done when you only have a five-hour window every night."
That different funding streams -- federal, state and local -- were used to pay for the project also complicated matters. "If the change order involves a part of the project funded with federal money," Kauffman said, "that has to be done one way. If it involves state capital assistance money, it's a different way, and if it's county money, it's a whole different system."
Then there was the "force account agreement."
The force account is the amount of funding set aside for Amtrak, which completes its work, then submits bills.
The general contractor on the original project was Caldwell, Heckles & Egan Inc., of Lancaster.
But, as James Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, explained: "When you do a project on any Amtrak property they, because of their union agreement, must have their forces on the job."
If Amtrak does not have workers with the needed training or skills, private contractors may do that work. It does employ painting crews so any painting must be done by Amtrak forces.
Michael Baker Inc., a national consulting firm with offices in Harrisburg, was hired by PennDOT in 2011 to analyze delays in the project. The Baker study found that a "significant amount of the delay" on the project was due to "the availability of Amtrak force account personnel" -- specifically, "painting personnel are not readily available when needed."
Baker found, for example, that before lights could be installed beneath canopies on the platforms, the canopies needed to be painted. But they had been ready to paint for three months, and weren't -- setting back the electrical contractor's schedule.
Cowhey said that about $833,000 of the $14.2 million budget was originally set aside in the Amtrak force account. But in 2010, Amtrak informed the county that because of union contracts that had been renegotiated during the project, its work would instead cost $2.4 million.
County leaders went ballistic.
"We immediately convened a big pow-wow in Lancaster that included our federal representatives, the county commissioners, the county transportation authority and Marilyn Jamison," Cowhey said. "Our point was to try to save as much of the public's money as possible, and we were able to negotiate it down."
In a negotiated settlement, the county agreed to pay Amtrak $1.7 million for its work.
Meanwhile, the pace of the project lagged -- it would ultimately take 16 months longer than expected -- and led to increasing costs. First pegged at $8.3 million, the price tag grew to $12 million, then ultimately $14.2 million.
By the fall of 2011, much work had been done. But the station still looked shabby inside -- and some local leaders began to complain.
"It's really disheartening," Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray told the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era in September of that year. "A lot of us thought when this was starting that it was really going to be something."
County officials, including Cowhey, noted that the peeling paint wasn't on the list of things to fix. "I think everyone has done the best they can with the original designs," Cowhey said at the time.
Official frustration, however, mounted. In the wake of the outrage, Amtrak announced it would undertake the Capstone project to address those concerns. The project was to include painting and plastering, refinishing wooden benches in the station and other cosmetic fixes.
"We are ready to get in there and start," said Amtrak spokeswoman Danielle Hunter in January 2012.
Amtrak committed to funding it, and estimates the project will cost $3.5 million. But even now, agency officials admit, they aren't sure when they will receive funding for the remaining components of the project.
As planning director Cowhey noted, "Everyone wants public transportation but no one wants to pay for it. Congress always underfunds Amtrak."
Government statistics show that in the past four years, Congress has appropriated $53.3 billion to bail out the highway trust fund, which is fueled by gas taxes and used to repair the nation's roads and bridges. Because tax revenues flatlined, Congress needed to appropriate the additional money to complete needed projects.
Amtrak officials point out that the $53.3 billion provided to the highway fund is 30 percent more money than Amtrak has received since its creation in 1971.
In January 2012, local officials formed the Lancaster Train Station Advisory Committee after growing increasingly concerned "about what was not being done as part of Amtrak's Capstone project for the Lancaster train station," said Randy Patterson, director of economic development for Lancaster, and a member of the group.
Its mission, he said, is "to continue to influence the accountability of Amtrak to complete the work."
There was cautious optimism at some of the early meetings, but that quickly began to fade, said Bob Shoemaker, executive director of the Lancaster Alliance. At each meeting, an itemized timetable of work to be completed -- including a deadline for its completion --was distributed to everyone.
Shoemaker said it soon became apparent that if the work was not completed by the original deadline, Amtrak would simply move the date to create a new "deadline."
At one point, a member of the committee told Amtrak officials, "You know, deadlines aren't supposed to be fluid. I guess if you constantly move deadlines back, then you never really miss a deadline, do you?"
Others believe Amtrak is simply out of its league. Shoemaker explained, "Amtrak is in the train business, not the property management or construction business. Nor should it be."
Shoemaker offered the recent installation of automated timing mechanisms to unlock and lock the station's main doors as an example: The mechanisms were installed after two occasions last year when Amtrak workers failed to arrive at the station on time to unlock the doors manually. Commuters taking the first morning train were forced to run around the building, scramble across tracks and climb up on the platform to make the train.
Shoemaker, a former bank administrator, said, "If that had happened at one of our banks, we would have had a company there the next day to install the mechanisms."
Instead, Amtrak used its crew of carpenters to install the mechanisms. The process took two months to complete.
"There are carpenters working out there who are being asked to do a variety of tasks," said Shoemaker, who describes himself as "an outspoken critic of the quality of work being done at the station."
He continued, "From refurbishing the wooden benches in the ticketing area to installing the automatic door locks, these are jobs which require different levels of expertise. And they are learning on the job."
Even now, red tape continues to entangle the project.
The Federal Railroad Commission, which funds Amtrak and consequently the work at the station, must review the plans for every distinct component of the project -- a process that takes, on average, 90 days. Those same plans must then be reviewed by the state's Historic Preservation Office to ensure the work (down to details such as dictating paint colors) maintains the building's historic accuracy. That review adds another 30-60 days. Only then can the project be put out for bid.
And, said Amtrak's Jamison, the proposals are not transmitted digitally, but by regular "snail" mail.
"There are complicated bureaucracies involved," said Jamison. "It's like filing taxes. We go through all these forms, we don't like to do it, but you have to do it."
Kauffman, asked if Amtrak was justified in its claims that it is hamstrung by red tape, laughed.
"Now you're putting me in the uncomfortable position of defending Amtrak but I would have to say definitely yes, that is a valid argument for delays in the project," he said.
In January, Amtrak officials told the advisory committee it had finally received approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to dual-submit plans to the FRA and SHPO so the review processes could take place simultaneously. The announcement was seen as a positive development but still, some committee members wondered, "What took them so long to figure that out?"
However, Kauffman said Amtrak may have requested the dual-submit process early on in the project and "it's perfectly likely that it could have taken the feds and the state this long to grant approval.''
"That's the devil some of us deal with," Kauffman said. "When you're dealing with government agencies you have to figure out who's No. 1 on the list, who's No. 2, and then be ready to revise the proposal for the second agency if the first one wants changes."
Yet, Kauffman did express frustration with Amtrak.
"They knew exactly when the Capstone project was scheduled to begin," he said, "but Amtrak didn't start submitting plans for review until after the start-up date. You would think they would have submitted those plans for review while the original project was winding down. That way, they would have had their approvals and been able to start work right away rather than have to wait a few months like they did."
The sheer number of people involved in the process has caused problems. Most agree that no one stepped forward to aggressively lead the efforts. Absent that leader, the project -- so complex, dependent upon so many agencies, contractors and subcontractors -- easily veered off course.
One individual who has followed the process but does not directly represent any stakeholders said, "There were a whole lot of cooks in the kitchen but there wasn't any chef. Things got out of control. People started blaming each other behind their backs. I remember attending some meetings where everyone was in the room and the tension was just incredible."
The source's reluctance to speak on the record is widespread. In what may be an indication of how controversial the project has become, almost half of the people interviewed for this story agreed to speak only if they were not identified.
"Here's the problem," one said. "A lot of these people will probably have to work together on other projects in the future. Nobody wants to jeopardize those working relationships by angering people." Or as another who has been involved in the project since construction began in 2009 said bluntly, "If what I say and think about this mess is ever traced back to me, I'd probably lose my job."
Unfortunately for all involved -- and the Lancaster County community -- a lack of dedicated funding may continue to delay completion of the Capstone project.
The work schedule currently calls for a new heating/ventilation/air conditioning system to be installed in the station concourse by May 6.
But Amtrak has no money to pay for the project and doesn't know when it will. Consequently, the work has not yet been put out to bid and no contractor is in place to complete it.
Even longer term, there is no money in place to make the station handicapped-accessible and meet federal Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. Amtrak projects that work will not be finished until July 2015.
Amtrak did not have to meet ADA requirements from the beginning because when the act was passed, 500 train stations were grandfathered in because Congress knew the money needed to make them instantly compliant was not available.
After that news was announced to the train advisory committee, one member asked, "Do you know what's going to happen when people see the money that was spent to plaster and paint the bathrooms and then everything gets ripped up to install new facilities? They're going to go nuts."n