Letters to the Editor

Wal-Mart blunder in Atascadero was hardly a surprise

This view of the Del Rio Road overpass over Highway 101 in Atascadero looks toward El Camino Real and the site of the proposed Walmart store in 2012.
This view of the Del Rio Road overpass over Highway 101 in Atascadero looks toward El Camino Real and the site of the proposed Walmart store in 2012. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

While it may come as a shock to some, those of us in Save Atascadero and other citizens who warned Atascadero’s city staff, council and Planning Commission that Wal-Mart traffic mitigation costs could skyrocket and leave the city and taxpayers on the hook, were not at all surprised by the recent revelation that what was touted as a $4.5 million city/taxpayer project is now estimated to be closer to $12 million.

How could professional city planners and the council, the stewards of taxpayers’ monies, have approved a project without knowing the true costs and liabilities? Why the discrepancy between the original traffic mitigation costs and the current estimates for the Highway 101/Del Rio Road interchange roundabouts?

The answers can be found in Wal-Mart’s business model and modus operandi, and the city staff and council wanting only to see and hear what was financially feasible for the city.

Wal-Mart is notorious for working city governments for subsidies to off-set the costs of their development. Initially, Wal-Mart agreed, as reported first by the former city manager in a 2005 email to George Luna, who was then on the council, that they would cover all the expenses of traffic mitigation identified in the environmental impact report (EIR).

The Annex developers at that time, the Rottman Group, were under the same impression. When Wal-Mart reneged on this promise and stated it would only pay its “fair share,” Steven Rottman wrote about it angrily in a Tribune Viewpoint dated Nov. 15, 2011.

Knowing that its share would be a percentage of the total cost, Wal-Mart’s engineering firm, EDA, which supplied the cost estimates in the EIR, lowballed the cost of these traffic mitigations.

As the recent staff report points out, EDA’s estimate “did not include the costs for design, inspection, environmental document preparation, permitting, materials testing and other ‘soft costs.’ ”

Moreover, the original estimate ignored the wildly expensive costs of widening the Del Rio overpass to include sidewalks and a third traffic lane, requirements of Caltrans, that were pointed out in the EIR hearings and citizen written concerns.

In fact, Warren Frace, community development director, told the Chamber of Commerce that if the cost of the traffic mitigation and the city’s responsibility to construct these two roundabouts approached anywhere near $11 million, then the project was dead. Routine traffic fees and borrowing from the taxpayers’ generated sewer fund would not be enough to cover these costs.

Then, the EIR was recirculated and it was determined that, lo and behold, Wal-Mart could build its Supercenter first (before any Annex stores) and without having to construct the two roundabouts on each side of the Del Rio/101 overpass, simultaneously with the third roundabout at El Camino and Del Rio as recommended by Caltrans.

But, if there were a cost “overrun” on this part of the project, Wal-Mart would be capped at paying up to a measly $200,000 extra. This was placed in the EIR as a condition only after Save Atascadero met with city staff and engineer and raised the question: What if the costs of mitigation were much higher?

Now, not surprisingly, the city is looking for a sales tax increase without dedicating what the funds will be used for.

Ostensibly, the staff and council are verbally promising that it is to repair our shabby roads. But don’t be surprised again if these funds — if Measures E-14 and F-14 pass — are used to subsidize Wal-Mart, the richest retailer in the world.