Why would someone tear down a $4.5 million building that’s only 13 years old? If you’re a government agency, you do it because you simply want to build something else. After all, you’re not spending your own money.
In Birmingham, the local mass transit agency built a fancy new central terminal for buses in 1999. It’s across the street from the Amtrak station, and the Greyhound bus station is a few blocks away, in a location where it’s been for many decades. When the new terminal, shown above, was built, it was supposed to be the first phase of a larger project that would combine a terminal for Amtrak, Greyhound and local transit buses. The agency has been talking about an “intermodal facility” for years.
The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority is a county-wide, inter-government agency, but it’s the Birmingham city government that drives the bus, so to speak. Mass transit is important to a substantial number of people who live in the inner city, but it’s irrelevant to almost everybody who lives in the suburbs. (I’ve never been on one of the buses and I see many of those big buses riding around the area virtually empty.)
So why is this very expensive new building being torn down this summer? That’s not clear. Nobody seems to ask hard questions — and make them stick — when it’s “government money” involved.
Most of the money to build the current facility came from the federal government. I haven’t been able to find the breakdown of who paid how much, but the local newspaper said the entire building cost $4.5 million. Since the city is now tearing it down, the Federal Transportation Administration wanted to city to reimburse it for a portion of the cost of the building and the market value of the land.
Initially, it appeared that the city could be liable for up to $8 million in penalties to the FTA, which makes me wonder if the building really cost more than the reported $4.5 million, but I’m using the lower figure to be conservative. But the city and the FTA have agreed to a deal that will see the city turning some land over to the FTA and paying a penalty of $101,000.
With that, you’d think the federal government would understand that the idiots making decisions for the facility aren’t to be trusted with such decisions — and large amounts of money — but the FTA is now going to turn around and give the city even more money to build the new bus terminal to replace the old terminal that it also paid for.
Does this sound insane yet?
The new bus and train station will cost nearly $30 million. The FTA is giving the city $23.6 million of that and city voters have approved borrowing $6 million to go toward it.
So why is the city tearing down this nice, almost-new building and constructing another one? It’s certainly not because ridership is so heavy the building can’t handle the traffic. The current building was designed as the first phase of a larger project that would become an intermodal facility, so it’s not that the needs have changed. What could it be?
The only explanation I can find comes from an article in the local newspaper last summer:
The design team of Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio and Hoskins Architecture, both of Birmingham, and Niles Bolton of Atlanta worked nearly a year on options for the site. In the end, the concept required leveling the [Metro Area Express] bus station, even though the $4.5 million structure was built in 1999.
That’s not an explanation. That’s just an unsupported assertion that the architects decided it was best.
If there were a real explanation, it would have surfaced by now. Various local politicians have expressed doubts about the plan and about the wisdom of tearing down a perfectly good building, but no explanations have been forthcoming except vague comments about the architects deciding it was best.
I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you the real reason. Not for sure. But I’ve been around politics long enough to figure that it was probably something like this. Somebody important to the project — maybe the major or maybe someone else with clout — looked at the architects’ options and loved a grandiose proposal that the architects had thrown out there as the unrealistic dream plan. And whoever that was said something like this.
“This one looks impressive,” said my theoretical important person. “I like this one way better than the others. It will impress people. I don’t care if it costs three times as much. I want something that looks cool. After all, we’re not spending our own money.”
At that point, everybody would have chuckled and realized he was right. As long as the “important people” say the money should be spent, the people whose money is being stolen have no say in the matter. That would be you.