What I’m about to tell you has a transportation connection, I swear.
My wife and I are about six weeks into living through a home renovation. We have a see-through kitchen ceiling and bare concrete floors in half the house, and scuzzy old insulation visible where there used to be sheetrock, counters and appliances. To block dust from the bedroom part of the place, there’s a giant plastic curtain with a zippered portal spanning the living room, which also hosts the refrigerator and a huge stack of hardwood flooring for future installation. The garage is a workshop, and there’s an elephantine dumpster in the driveway.
Kristy is a veteran of this sort of thing. But I’m a renovation novice, and have been getting an education both in how things get done and how to manage emotions and expectations. Along with patience, I’m learning structural engineering, city permitting, the vagaries of construction subcontracting, what a “pony wall” is and the infinite variety of shades of gray. I’ve found that there is a profound difference between hearing about your friend’s renovation and actually going through one.
Will it take two months? Three? Five? No one is saying, and there’s no way of really knowing. Best to just let it wash over you, and enjoy each piece of progress as a gift from the universe.
Austin drivers have had a similar experience over the past four years with the North MoPac Boulevard renovation, minus the patience part. Easy for me to say, of course, because until June I lived in East Austin and experienced the MoPac snarl only sporadically and often at nonpeak hours.
But it has certainly been a learning experience for all of us Central Texas drivers, not least because “rush” hour traffic moves at a pace such that commuters have gotten a very good look at every step. Twice a day.
Back in the halcyon days of late 2013, when MoPac general contractor CH2M was finalizing the design and prepping 11 miles from the river to Parmer Lane for the work to come, we were told that the two express toll lanes, bridge and ramp changes, and seven miles of sound walls would all be done by September 2015. Sounds quaintly naive now, doesn’t it?
CH2M and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority had signed a contract promising the contractor $135 million or so to do the whole job, a figure that can only increase upon mutual agreement. Now, in a report from March of this year, the company estimates it will cost $375 million to finish it, giving the Colorado-based contractor a $250 million gulp of red ink. As I’ve said before, lawyers will likely do well in the inevitable lawsuit.
Back to the actual renovation though, the MoPac one.
Think of it as an 11-mile-long house, except that it has 100,000 to 150,000 cars and trucks moving through the den each day. The lights go out between sundown and sunup. Gremlins lurk in the foundation and walls. Someone has what seems to be a better idea of how to do something, and the improvisation turns out badly. Every now and then the work site floods and shuts everyone down for several days. As for those workers, well, Central Texas has a whole lot of building going on (including uncounted actual home renovations and other major road jobs) and it’s ticklish to find and keep hard hats.
And it’s all about sequencing. You can’t pave a road without building its base first, and you can’t do that if you have to replace a water line or utility cables under that road shoulder. You can’t build the sound wall if you’re still adding the lane right next to it. And you can’t do any of it if you had to lay off the crew for that particular task two weeks ago, and they departed to take a job elsewhere. And on and on.
None of this is to let the contractor and the mobility authority off the hook. When you’re playing with hundreds of millions of public dollars and the transportation vascular system of a big city, anticipating all these challenges and estimating at least close to accurately both the construction duration and the cost is not too much to expect.
The mobility authority and another contractor managed to come in right on time when the 183-A tollway was built between 2005 and 2007, and the Texas Department of Transportation beat opening date predictions on pieces of Texas 130, Texas 45 North and Loop 1 when it was building that 66-mile-long project just over a decade ago. It can be done.
Like my home renovation, MoPac will eventually be done as well. The current estimate, one that appears to be mostly reliable at this point, is that the rest of the northbound toll lane (from West Cesar Chavez Street to near Far West Boulevard) will open before the end of September. A couple of weeks later the entire southbound toll lane will open, we’re told.
I know you don’t want to hear this, but that won’t be the end. Expect some landscaping and other cleanup work for some time.
But beyond that, the mobility authority board in May decided to take about $5 million of work off CH2M’s plate to focus its efforts and speed up the toll lane opening. Jeff Dailey, the agency’s deputy executive director, told me the agency will be hiring someone else to do five or so tasks, and that this work would take another four months or so. Yep, four months.
Much of that work is off the road or in the median, and thus unlikely to affect traffic. But not all of it.
The list includes one last sound wall, this one along MoPac’s east side north of West 35th Street. If you know the highway — and of course you do — there’s only a few feet of room between the curb and the fence lines there. That means that when that work begins, there likely will be some overnight closures of the outside northbound lane between West 35th and West 45th streets.
So, orange barrels, neon vests and unexpected delays on MoPac well into next year. But we will have our toll lanes, and hopefully decreased rush hour congestion, very soon.
Think of it as a gift from the universe.