Slow road to MoPac tolls: A look at what went wrong on delayed project


If all had gone as planned on MoPac Boulevard, toll lanes would be opening this Thursday from near Lady Bird Lake deep into North Austin at Parmer Lane.

Seven miles of gleaming sound walls would line parts of the road, along with new bike lanes and sidewalks here and there. Bridges would be wider up and down the corridor. New “undercrossings” would be in place, connecting the toll lanes to downtown through West Cesar Chavez and West Fifth streets. Politicians and highway officials no doubt would be out there someplace, perhaps at dawn’s early light, wielding oversized gilded scissors to grinningly snip a blue ribbon.

Barricades would then be moved aside and hundreds if not thousands of drivers, those willing to pay fluctuating tolls, would have been able to bypass MoPac’s notoriously snarled traffic.

All did not go as planned.

The 11.2-mile, $200 million MoPac project, plagued with a plodding start, bad luck with rock and rain, questionable decisions, loose oversight and what seem in hindsight rosy expectations about cost and time, won’t be done until the end of 2016 at the earliest, more than 15 months late. Officials with the project’s overseer, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, and its general contractor, CH2M, are at odds about how to apportion substantial extra costs associated with the delay. Motorists, meanwhile, continue to slog by the Jersey barriers and wonder when it will all end.

An effort to salvage at least some of the schedule by opening express lanes on the northern 7 miles, which haven’t been hit by the tribulations visited on the project south of West 45th Street, is hung up for now as the two sides haggle. While both sides offer assurances that a contractor change is unlikely, CH2M’s continued participation to the project’s conclusion is something short of certain.

“The evidence we have on the site, with the crews and the subcontractors and the progress they’re making, tells me that CH2M is very protective of their national reputation,” said Mike Heiligenstein, the mobility authority’s longtime executive director. “I think they’re going to stay on the job and finish it as bid.”

Go. Stop. Go.

The MoPac project, first proposed a decade ago, kicked off in early 2013 with what appeared at the time to be fabulous news.

The mobility authority, deputized by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand MoPac, had estimated that final design and construction would cost $170 million. The agency also stipulated the job had to be done in no more than 910 days, two and a half years.

When the bids were unveiled in February 2013, two of the finalists exceeded that agency estimate, bidding more than $190 million. But CH2M, a huge international design and construction firm based in Colorado, came in with the bold price of $136.6 million. Beyond that, the company said it could do the work in 882 days, a month faster than the maximum, and a mobility authority panel judged the technical aspects of the contractor’s proposal superior to its competitors.

Wes Burford, the mobility authority’s engineering director, says now that CH2M leaving $56.9 million on the table did cause agency officials some concern at the time. But he said the authority, not privy to the contractor’s underlying financial assumptions, had little choice but to believe the happy news.

“They were statistically in a reasonable range, on the low side,” Burford said. “And conversations with (CH2M) indicated that they had a high level of confidence in their bid, and that they thought they were going to be profitable on this project.”

Officials say a key reason the CH2M bid was so much lower was that the contractor was proposing a major design change, a feature that in retrospect led to much of the trouble now plaguing the project.

A yearlong lull

Rather than use overpasses to connect the toll lanes to West Cesar Chavez and West Fifth (the express lanes will be on the inside of MoPac, nearest the median), CH2M suggested building what amounted to one-lane tunnels under the existing free lanes. The company estimated doing so would save $10 million in materials and labor, would speed up the project overall, lessen lane closures associated with building a bridge over live traffic and thus net it even higher savings.

Authority officials, already fending off neighborhood and political concerns about building noisy overpasses, gave the OK to what officials call undercrossings.

“That’s why our bid was so much lower than everyone else’s,” said Craig Martell, CH2M’s executive director of special projects and now, after a series of management shake-ups on the project, the company official overseeing MoPac. “We looked at the job somewhat optimistically, of course. But who doesn’t when they’re chasing these projects?”

CH2M got the official go-ahead to begin final design work in April 2013. Then, it seemed from a public perspective, not much happened for the rest of the year. Some surveyors could be seen out on the highway, and some portable drilling machines, but little substantial work was visible.

Mobility authority officials were uneasy.

“It felt like it was taking an awful long time to get from the notice to proceed to where there was some serious activity on the corridor, longer than on our past projects,” Heiligenstein said.

The bad luck and unfortunate decisions, it turns out, had begun. A helicopter tabbed by a subcontractor to conduct laser-based surveying crashed on a job elsewhere. Rather than rustle up another contractor, CH2M waited for the chopper to get back in service. Burford said that delayed the design process by up to two months.

Yes, Martell said, the crash contributed to a slow start. But without being specific, Martell said CH2M design engineers “complained a lot about the influence during the design phase that the (mobility authority) had on what we were doing. The fact is, we came out of design later than projected. The reasons for that need to be analyzed.”

The results of that analysis, Martell said, will be part of the ongoing financial negotiations between the agency and his company. CH2M this summer asked for a $53 million bump up in the contract amount, a request rejected by the mobility authority. Adding that to the contract would have pushed the project tens of millions of dollars over its budget.

The two sides have submitted the matter to a three-member arbitration panel created under the contract. That group held its first meeting Friday. The precise effect of the delay on the finances of the mobility authority and CH2M won’t be clear until that panel renders a decision.

In early 2014, the public finally began to see construction. Excavation began in the median, particularly in the areas north of RM 2222 where the Union Pacific track is no longer in the center of the highway and MoPac’s right of way is more spacious.

Even so, the project had less than 100 construction workers on it through the first five months of 2014. Officials, despite the stodgy pace, maintained a sunny public stance for most of 2014, insisting the project would finish in September 2015.

But behind the scenes, there was more trouble. CH2M announced it was getting out of the highway construction business after its current jobs were done. Martell traced the decision to the company’s bad experience with power plant construction work elsewhere.

That choice, Burford said, led to what has been a revolving door of project and construction managers on the job, hurting overall coordination and progress.

“We questioned their wisdom of making the announcement while our job was underway,” Burford said. “That message sends a pretty good shock wave through a workforce that’s looking at their last job with the company perhaps.”

Rock fight

Then, in June last year, boring began for drainage tunnels beneath the undercrossings. Those tunnels, five to seven feet wide and more than 30 feet below the main highway lanes, are needed to keep water from pooling in the low-lying undercrossings. According to CH2M’s schedule, that work was to be done by mid-October last year.

But CH2M’s contractor immediately ran into harder and more abrasive rock, and found it shallower, than earlier top soil and bedrock testing led it to believe. Consequently, progress was much slower than expected, and the rock chewed up the 66-inch and 84-inch drilling heads.

Additional boring machines were brought to the site, but still the work wasn’t done until July, more than eight months behind schedule.

“We didn’t sit back and go, ‘Wow, this is a bad problem,’ and just wait for it to finish,” Martell said. “We tried to do something to counteract it. But it was such an intractable problem.”

With the drainage done, CH2M for the past couple of months has been excavating the southbound undercrossing, much of that digging in looser top soil, and only now is taking on the bedrock. What will happen next with that work, and the northbound undercrossing to come, is hard to predict, officials said.

What is certain, mobility authority and CH2M officials said, is that the undercrossing section south of Enfield Road will be the last part of the project to get done.

CH2M, meanwhile, was having troubles with the city of Austin’s Water Utility department.

The job included rerouting a 42-inch water main that crosses under MoPac north of West 35th Street and then lies under the right of way for about 1,800 feet going north. The plan was to cut the line through Camp Mabry, tunnel deep under MoPac and then connect into the existing line as it goes east.

But, even though CH2M is on the city’s rotation list of engineering companies, the city balked at CH2M engineers designing the new line, preferring to choose a design firm on its own. According to both CH2M and mobility authority officials, that design process dragged on months longer than predicted. Construction didn’t begin until a few months ago. The water department had no comment on the delay, noting only that the pipe relocation will be done by November.

That timing won’t affect the overall completion date of the job, now tied to what is occurring south of Enfield. But it will affect a course correction that the authority and CH2M are attempting.

Damage control

Because the northern section is much closer to completion than the work down south, despite the rains this winter and spring, officials are hoping to open a first phase of the toll lanes by spring 2016, rather than waiting until the job is completely done and opening all 11.2 miles at once. The interim southbound toll lane would probably run from Parmer to about RM 2222. The northbound lane would start there, or even farther south if possible, officials said.

The delay on the 42-inch line, and the widening of the road awaiting its completion, could limit how far south the northbound toll lane extends, at least for a while.

A phased opening would mean earlier toll revenue for the mobility authority. And, if the two sides can agree, it could reduce the “liquidated damages” that CH2M would owe under the contract.

That agreement, signed in April 2013, would reduce CH2M’s total take from the job by $73,500 in such penalties for each day it takes to finish the job after this Thursday, the original date of “substantial completion” in the contract.

Already, the two sides have reached accord on moving that contractual date to Dec. 27, based on mutually agreed additions to the job. If the project opens in two phases, then the fiscal hit to CH2M could be further reduced. How much, and whether to lower the $20 million liquidated damages ceiling, is on the table now.

The long delay on such a high-profile project, combined with the serious financial impact on both sides, differing views of culpability and the need to maintain an amicable relationship as work continues, has both sides talking cautiously, at least for publication. But the experience has already reverberated several miles to the east on U.S. 183, where the mobility authority will commence construction of another tollway next year.

The authority this spring spurned a design and construction bid that was $116 million lower than the next cheapest proposal. Instead, the agency chose the second-lowest bidder, which it judged had a far superior design and work plan.

The primary takeaway of the MoPac experience, Heiligenstein said, is that the mobility authority, which has only a couple of dozen full-time employees and historically has relied on consultants, needs to be more deeply involved day-to-day in what its contractors are doing. He has hired an additional engineer to oversee the U.S. 183 job.

“The authority has to have a very clear and strong presence at every phase of the project,” Heiligenstein said. “Maybe we stayed a little bit too lean too long, and that’s on me.”



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