About those Amarillo bus benches...

About those Amarillo bus benches...

By John Kanelis

Randy Burkett has been in the news of late, having been elected to the Amarillo City Council and then getting involved with some disputes with fellow council members and senior city administrators over several issues … such as the future of downtown Amarillo.

He's been in the spotlight before. Four years ago, as Amarillo ended its contract with Burkett's outdoor advertising company and installed newly designed benches and shelters at hundreds of the city's bus stops.

Amarillo has made its bus benches and shelters compliant with federal law. The move came after the city and Burkett, who owned the benches as part of his advertising company, couldn't reach an agreement on whether to renew Burkett's contract with the city.

The ensuing dispute, Burkett said, "had no bearing on my decision to run for the City Council" this past May. He ended up defeating incumbent Place 3 Councilwoman Lilia Escajeda.

"The Wallace Bajjali debacle downtown made me decide to run," Burkett said, referring to the master developer the city hired; Wallace Bajjali ended up dissolving in a dispute involving the two main principals in the Katy-based firm. Burkett added that he "almost ran against Lilia the time before," in 2013.

What happened to the benches that the city removed? They ended up on a lot west of the city near the newly built Potter County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace building along Interstate 40.

According to Mayor Paul Harpole, "most of the benches have been taken away." Some of them remain. Burkett said that when he "picked up the benches as requested, we ended up donating most of them to churches, gun clubs, fairgrounds, etc."

Harpole explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act came into play in 2011, during Harpole's first term as mayor. Two things became critical to the city, Harpole said. ADA, which was enacted in 1990 during President George H.W. Bush's term in office, required that the city provide sufficient room at its bus stops for disabled passengers to board and depart the buses; the other issue became the old benches' tendency to "tip over in a heavy wind," Harpole said.

"The old benches were fine, but they just weren't fit for what we needed to do," Harpole recalled.

The mayor remembered that Burkett "became upset" that the city decided to end its contract with Burkett's advertising company. "He obviously wanted us to keep the benches," Harpole said.

Once the city severed its contract with Burkett, "He had to deal with what to do with the benches," Harpole said, adding that "I presume Mr. Burkett took the rest of them away and disposed of them."

"I think part of the problem that Randy had was with the sign ordinance" enacted by the city in 2008, Harpole said, adding that the ordinance was enacted "before I was even on the city (commission)."

The ordinance, according to Harpole, is "quite restrictive."

He explained, for example, "If you work at Home Depot and you want to change the prices of the lawnmowers you're selling in front of the store and you have to change the wording on the signage, you have to go to City Hall to get a permit."

"It's a very onerous ordinance and very wrong," Harpole said.

"I think there was some validity to the idea that the ordinance played a part" in the city's actions to remove the bus benches throughout Amarillo City Transit's network of bus stops.

Burkett doesn't remember the disagreement that way. He said the city's latest sign ordinance didn't come into play while he and the city haggled over the bus stop benches. "They've passed several sign ordinances over the years," Burkett said, joking that "I think they wanted to name some of them after me."
Burkett said the "benches themselves were ADA compliant. The problem was a lot of the bus stops around town were not, meaning their pad sites and curb cuts did not meet ADA compliance."

Judy Phelps, director of ACT, agreed. "You need a pretty large pad" at the bus shelters to make them ADA compliant, she said. "The challenge was in finding adequate space" for the 8-by-10-foot concrete pads required by ADA, Phelps said.

Phelps said the city has more than more than 400 ACT stops throughout the city and the city had to make all of them compliant with the accessibility standards established by the ADA.

Burkett explained that the issue with the contract renewal centered on the advertising on the bus benches. "The guard at the time," he said, "did not like the advertising being on them. I offered to pick up all 400-plus benches and replace them with lighted bus shelters, which most cities now have, but that was rejected as well."

Burkett explained further: "Each shelter was at the time about $5,000 apiece and I offered to convert 200 (shelters) all at once for $1 million. For some reason they did not want to go in that direction."

Burkett said the argument with the city and bus bench removal turned out ultimately to be a "blessing for me. It allowed me to focus back on my billboard company."