ELYRIA - It's only 5 miles from Chestnut Ridge Road to Lorain Boulevard, but state Route 57 is more than just a convenient bypass for motorists.
Two years ago, it was the pothole-pocked roadway that caused tires to fly off into the grassy median, rims to bend from the impact of hitting huge crevices and residents to storm City Hall, demanding reimbursement for all the dollars they'd shelled out in car repairs.
Then a $20 million reconstruction project began, and city officials thought that all that had ailed the thoroughfare would be fixed.
But when the economic bottom fell out for the city months after the project started, residents began to wonder if in the midst of such financial uncertainty the project contained too many amenities that went above the new paved road for which they clamored.
Now, instead of lauding the city for fixing the road, residents are once again angry at city leaders, and this time they say the roadway is a prime example of wasteful spending.
Two items stand out above the rest most often cited by the city's critics.
First, there's the landscaping - the trees, flowers, bushes and shrubs that have been planted in the medians and along the fence line of the road. Then there are the hundreds of black light posts that have been installed to illuminate the roadway.
Of the total $20.1 million cost of the project, a combined $2.4 million has been spent on landscaping and lighting, with the city contributing $42,000 for landscaping and $159,000 for lighting.
A reason for recall
A small but vocal minority cites the lighting and landscaping as wasteful spending, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back in their bid to recall Mayor Bill Grace from office.
Craig Bevan, co-founder of Stand Up Elyria, a political action committee leading the charge to unseat Grace, believes that of all the problems in the city, it will be roses and lights that eventually do in the mayor. When he's out seeking signatures on the petitions he needs to initiate a recall, Bevan said the roses and lights on Route 57 are the No. 1 thing he hears about.
"It's the talk of not only the city, but the county," he said. "Everyone you talk to that has driven 57 goes, 'What the heck happened?' It's one of the main reasons why people are tired of what is going on."
Beyond the concerns about how the money was spent for the project, Bevan also wonders if the road will not become a hotbed of traffic accidents when the temperature drops and ice and snow coat the road.
"What was he thinking?" Bevan said. "This is going to be a dangerous thing. People are going to get distracted by the lights because there are just too many of them. They are going to slide off the road and take out two and three poles at a time."
Others also expressed concerns about the road's safety in the winter at the Town Hall meeting Thursday. Hosted by Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, the meeting was an opportunity for residents to speak their mind on city issues and ask questions of city officials.
It took only until the second question for the focus to shift to Route 57.
Mike Holstein of Campagna Street asked city leaders what they planned to do about the road as soon as the first person was hurt. His question was met with applause and cheers.
And it left Grace doing what he's been having to do a lot lately: defending Route 57.
Defending decisions made in regard to the project has become routine for Grace.
At a City Council meeting held just days before Craig's Town Hall meeting, Grace attempted to clarify some misconceptions about how the project is funded and why certain components - specifically the landscaping and lighting - were added.
At that time, Councilman Mike Lotko, D-at large, who heads the Council's Public Utilities, Safety and Environment Committee, expressed his curiosity over the number of lights and the spacing between them.
"Did we go to an engineering firm to determine if all the lights were necessary?" Lotko asked.
But at a distance of about 160 feet apart, the 370, 250-watt lights are only about 10 feet closer together than old lights on the road, Grace said.
It's all about visual perception, he said.
"The width of the median in the southern part of the projects makes it necessary to place two rows of lights in order to light both sides of the road," he said. "Before, the lights were just from Taylor Street to Lorain Boulevard and now the lights are on the entire project."
But in Grace's opinion, not having the lights would have been worse.
"If we didn't have lights, critics would say, 'What knucklehead didn't put lights on the project?' " he said.
But it's not only the number of lights that has come under fire.
The choice of lighting and future maintenance plans associated with it also has critics fuming.
That's because instead of allowing Ohio Edison to handle the lights, a decision was made that city employees will maintain them.
The 370 light poles are not the standard issue that Ohio Edison provides. The ones that were chosen for the thoroughfare are slimmer, shorter and a better-looking light, Grace said.
But, more importantly, they are cheaper, he said.
While Ohio Edison operates a program that includes electrical service and maintenance of the lights at a cost of $3,886.05 a month or $46,633 per year, Grace said they also have a set price for providing and installing each light post on a project.
Grace said existing employees in the city's Communications Department will maintain the lights. Of the 370 lights, each has a bulb that costs about $16 to replace and is projected to last two years or approximately 4,000 hours.
"The Ohio Edison program is about $46,000 a year," he said. "By doing it this way, it will cost the city about $25,000 a year. We have the equipment and trucks to change the bulbs and each bulb is approximately $16. That's a savings of $21,000 a year."
The city will now rely on 10 zones and meters to monitor the electricity usage on the lights and Ohio Edison will bill the city accordingly. Bulb replacement and electricity should not cost the city more than $25,000 a year, Grace said.
Deciding to install and maintain a separate light program is not an unusual route for cities to take, said Mark Durbin, spokesman from First Energy, the parent company of Ohio Edison.
"It's an option that some people sometimes go with," he said last week. "Everyone has their own set of reasons why they choose maintaining lights themselves over our program. Anytime you are dealing with street lights of that magnitude, the cost is going to be a factor."
When cities choose to install and maintain their own lights, they are responsible for bulb replacement, maintenance and electric service to each pole
For that reason, Councilman Kevin Krischer, I-5th Ward, questioned just how much of a cost savings the program will be in the end.
"We have to buy the lightbulb, but we also have to pay the workers to put the lights up," he said. "That's added expense."
The money trail
Grace said he understands that a project of the magnitude of Route 57 is bound to receive some criticism. But he said he hopes residents see the project as money well spent.
A cost analysis of the project shows the city is only responsible for a mere fraction of the cost, he said.
"The city's total share for this $20 million project is $2.9 million, and that includes about $1.173 million that was spent for preliminary engineering," he said. "We had to spend that money before funding from other agencies kicked in, but we have since received millions for that investment."
Normally, major construction projects seeking federal funding are funded on an 80-20 split with the federal government picking up 80 percent of the cost and the city putting up 20 percent.
But for this project, Grace said $2.1 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation was counted toward the city's share, which lowered Elyria's match to just 8.3 percent.
As a result, everything the project has included since the preliminary engineering has cost the city about 8 cents on the dollar, Grace said.
This brings Grace back to the rationale about why the landscaping was chosen.
"Of that $505,000, the city is only responsible for 8.3 percent, or about $42,000," he said. "That will be paid back over the course of 10 years at a cost of about $5,000 a year. Now, who wouldn't get $505,000 in landscaping for just $5,000 a year? And, we can't forget that we are saving about $21,000 a year by going with our own lighting program. The savings on the lighting practically pays for the landscaping."
Starting next spring, the city has contracted with the North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility to maintain the landscaping. In addition, there's a one-year warranty the city has on every tree, bush and plant - including the rose bushes, which have been the particular focus of ire - that has been planted.
Grace said it's worth noting the city hasn't yet spent any money on the project. The first payment on the state infrastructure bank loan the city took out to cover its share is not due until December 2010.
When it comes time to make payments, Grace said, the city will use money from the road maintenance fund - accumulated through license plate fees and gasoline taxes. That is money that does not come from the general fund and could not be used for police, fire or any other general fund obligation.
In the end, Grace said, lights and landscaping are just small steps toward improving the appeal of the city.
"This is what we have to do as a city," he said. "We have to improve the appeal of out city to sell our city. Route 57 is the front door of our city and if we are able to improve its look for 8 cents on the dollar, that is a wise investment by anyone's standard."
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.