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State doesn't offer to fix West Bay shortfall

Widening West Bay Drive will cost more than expected. So city officials are asking the state to help fill in cracks in the project's budget.

City Manager Steven Stanton met with state transportation officials Monday, hoping to partially make up for a gross underestimate in the cost of widening West Bay Drive _ a project that one official called the "keystone" for Largo's downtown redevelopment plans.

But the state offered no commitment to making up for a $1.45-million difference between the $3.35-million Largo budgeted for the project and the nearly $4.8-million it actually will cost.

Because West Bay is a state road, state Department of Transportation officials said they would work with Largo in re-evaluating contractor bids opened last month.

But "we made no commitment to increase funds for that project," DOT spokeswoman Marian Pscion said.

The state would have to get permission to increase funding from the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization, an 11-member board of officials countywide that approves transportation plans in the area.

Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler, MPO chairman, said he would consider the additional funding, adding that West Bay improvements would benefit residents throughout Pinellas. The issue could be discussed at the MPO meeting scheduled next week.

"This one (project) has been out there forever," Mischler said. "It should be done. . . . It's a direct link to the beaches from the interstate."

But even if the state did chip in, that would make up for just a portion of the difference. About $3-million of the $4.8-million is for road construction. Much of the rest will go for aesthetics, such as landscaping, decorative light poles and other touches intended to make downtown a draw.

The state already has agreed to reimburse Largo about $2.5-million in 2002 to construct the road. On Monday, Largo asked the state for $500,000 more.

The city still would need to pay about $945,000 to make up the difference between the low bid and the estimate.

The discrepancies come mostly from costs associated with aesthetics, such as light poles, Stanton said. Commissioners will have to decide in coming weeks whether to scale back the project or to use other city funds, such as reserves or local sales tax money to pay the difference. Largo, then, likely would have to hold off on other projects planned in coming years, Stanton said.

Largo commissioners will discuss their options during a meeting at City Hall at 7 tonight.

"We've got money," Stanton said. "It's just designated for different purposes."

For example, Stanton said, commissioners might choose to hold off on buying more firetrucks or delay spending on some public works projects and maintaining brick streets.

"We're trying to prioritize funding," Stanton said.

The reaction from commissioners was varied.

Mayor Thomas Feaster said he would agree to scale back the West Bay project's aesthetics, such as landscaping, decorative towers and other amenities, but not to a great extent.

"I don't want to cut a whole lot out of that because that's what's going to make the project," Feaster said. "I'd say this project is one of the keystones in Largo."

Feaster said he would use local sales tax money or a $600,000 federal grant Largo received for economic development and infrastructure improvements after lobbying Congress last year for brick street preservation.

Commissioner Jean Halvorsen said she doesn't want to slice aesthetics, which include spending nearly $800,000 for landscaping in what will be a 30-foot-wide median bisecting eastbound and westbound traffic.

"That's one thing that the people like," Halvorsen said.

But Commissioner Mary Laurance said she won't hesitate to trim the amenities if no other solution arises to her liking.

"I'm for the taxpayer," Laurance said. "That ($1.45-million) is quite a bit over."

Commissioner Marty Shelby said he is open to discussing cutbacks. He doesn't want to delay the project, but at the same time, Shelby said, he has "no desire to spend more money than has to be spent."

Contractor bids are good for six more weeks. Administrators think they will have come to a decision on what to do by then. Under the current time schedule, West Bay construction will begin in March and be completed in late November.