Texas 71 tollway project is months behind schedule

Turns out that North MoPac Boulevard isn’t the only Austin-area tollway construction project having trouble meeting its schedule.

The Texas 71 project, which will add one toll lane in each direction from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport entrance to east of Texas 130 and straighten out an FM 973 dogleg, will miss its contractual completion date of this Friday by several months. Flooding rains over the past year, and a design dispute between the Texas Department of Transportation and its general contractor, are to blame, according to TxDOT.

The toll lanes should open by the end of the year, TxDOT officials said. The rest of the project should be driveable by the end of February.

But at that point, the contractor, McCarthy Building Companies, will have to wait until early May and warmer nightime temperatures to pour on the final layers of asphalt, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy said. That final work, which will require some lane closures on both the toll and free lanes, should take another month.

That will cause several months of additional turmoil and lane closures for commuters from Eastern Travis County and Bastrop County, and anyone who needs to use Texas 71 to reach Texas 130. And it could mean a financial hit for McCarthy Building Companies, which TxDOT agreed to pay $95.5 million to design and build the 2-mile-long project.

Construction began in early 2015 and was projected to take 21 months.

The August 2014 contract between TxDOT and McCarthy allows the agency to subtract $27,000 for each day of delay after the projected “substantial completion” date, subject to adjustments agreed on by both parties. Negotiations have been ongoing to move that completion date to later this year or even into 2017, and thus reduce the “liquidated damages” assessed against McCarthy, McCoy said. A recommendation is headed for the desk of TxDOT executive director James Bass.

“There’s always the potential that liquidated damages could be assessed,” McCoy said. “There’s no way of predicting at this point.”

The project, aside from adding one toll lane in each direction (with short sections with two lanes in a given direction), included adding a third free lane to each side of Texas 71’s free lanes from just east of Onion Creek to west of Presidential Boulevard. FM 973, which previously had a dogleg just east of the airport, has been re-routed and will now cut straight across Texas 71. The construction includes an overpass for the toll lanes, allowing the FM 973 traffic to go under them.

But that overpass is not complete, forcing drivers on FM 973 who want to make a left turn to instead turn right and go a mile or more out of the way for a U-turn. The underpass won’t be open until at least January, TxDOT officials said.

The project’s total cost, including right of way purchases and movement of pre-existing utilities, is about $140 million, McCoy said.

The main cause of the project’s delay, officials said, was the heavy flooding that hit that part of Central Texas twice in the past year, in October 2015 and this May. That added about 50 days to the project, McCoy said.

“We had some crazy storms in this area, and it really slowed things down,” McCoy said. “Some of the work they had in place got washed out and they had to go in and repair and replace. And both times they had to wait until it dried out to do it.”

Beyond the wet weather, TxDOT and McCarthy had trouble agreeing on the technical requirements for the “road base,” the layers of compressed soil and specifically designed additives that workers lay down before applying coats of asphalt. That led to work being delayed or, in some cases, redone. How to allow for that in adjusting the contract has been the primary point of disagreement.

Officials with McCarthy, which in July was awarded a contract to build the Texas 45 Southwest toll road, declined to be interviewed for this article, but issued a short statement from project director Jeff Billows.

“McCarthy is working with TxDOT to negotiate a change order (to the contract) and execute a plan to deliver the project by spring of 2017,” Billows said.

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