Columns » Max Brantley

That pricey tunnel

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There's been a bit of good stewardship practiced at the Capitol lately, if too late for some really big savings.

I'm referring to the infamous Capitol tunnel. Leading legislators have been anxious to install a security-protected tunnel to traverse the 100 feet between the state Capitol and the state Multi-Agency Complex (Big MAC).

Monday, Gov. Mike Beebe reiterated that he wouldn't release any money for a tunnel. Related work will proceed, however.

Nobody had seen a need for a tunnel since Big MAC opened a couple of decades ago. But now legislative staffers are to be relocated to Big MAC. Legislative leaders didn't think it would do for the staffers, or legislators heading to new committee rooms planned in the building, to have to brave the elements for a 30-yard stroll.

House Speaker Robbie Wills, ringleader of the tunnel posse, made it sound as if the  construction need arose by happenstance.

“The State Library — another executive branch agency — is vacating the 5th floor of Big MAC and moving into rented space in the old Dillard's Building on Capitol Avenue.  This created a 70,000 square foot vacancy in Big Mac, something that hasn't happened in 30 years.”

The rest of that story: The State Library is moving as a direct result of the desire by  House members for more private office spaces. That required a shell game. Legislative staffers are to  be removed from the Capitol to make room for the new private legislative offices. The staffers, to stay close to legislators, will go to Big MAC. How did they get space in Big MAC? By moving the state library and other agencies to a new building. How'd they get a new building? A  Texas developer materialized (wonder how he knew to ask?) with a proposal to transform the derelict Dillard's headquarters building (until then slated to be a homeless shelter) into a state office building.

The new office building will be bought, not rented, by the state when it's completed at the first of next year for $18.5 million. (The developer, who paid $800,000 for the property, took out an initial $11 million construction loan, but it's possible his investment has risen.). The state is going to put another $1.5 million into the building in build-out and then sell bonds to pay off the $20 million cost. The cost, counting interest, will be from $30 to $45 million, depending on the length of the bond issue, 15 to 30 years.

The fix-up of Big MAC for legislative offices will cost $5 million. The cost of fixing up vacated Capitol space for legislative offices isn't known. Speaker Wills insists it will be minimal because recent renovations have left the space in “move-in” condition. We'll see. But I'd bet the speaker lunch at Doe's, if he still goes to such modest eateries between his international junketing stops, that partitions, doors, wiring, furniture and other odds and ends will put the work outside your average DIY budget.

Then there's the tunnel. Wills calls it a $1.8 million tunnel, which it is. But it's a $2.8 million project counting the “security lobby” that also would be required to connect it with Big MAC and the unavoidable street, sidewalk and landscaping work.

Gov. Mike Beebe said Monday that he'll release only enough of a $6 million appropriation for the Big MAC work. No tunnel expenditures. Taxpayers will welcome the savings. They'll be thrilled to learn the state will only be out a conservative $35 million to provide members of the House with private offices.

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