AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s something rotten in Barrington Oaks.
Several residents have complained of a sewer-like smell wafting through the North Austin neighborhood, where an ongoing wastewater main construction project has hit some costly and unexpected snags.
City Council approved a third change to the construction contract Thursday, raising the project price 21 percent over the original bid, according to city documents. As a standard, the city typically aims to keep project costs to within five percent of the contract bid.
Odors aside, the Barrington Oaks project highlights difficulties the city faces in repairing infrastructure at the city’s former edges, where records of underground utilities can be lacking. The work is necessary, but costs can quickly escalate beyond initial expectations. The neighborhood is situated at the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 183 and Spicewood Springs Road.
“You’re replacing stuff that’s been in the ground 40 to 50 years,” said Richard Browsher, vice president of the contractor on the job, Facilities Rehabilitation Inc. “Unfortunately, folks back then didn’t make good record drawings.”
Bowsher said it is not unusual for rehab projects in older areas to cost more than expected. Unrecorded underground obstacles can take time and extra money to work around.
“In this infrastructure replacement, it is not that uncommon for a fairly significant overrun,” he said.
The Austin Water Utility is funding the project, and the city’s Capital Contracting Office manages the change orders, said Howard Lazarus, director of Austin’s Public Works Department.
The city keeps careful track of change orders. A change order committee vets changes to contract bids, checking that paperwork is correct and ensuring changes have been properly negotiated. Change orders are done in a non-competitive environment, so the city wants to see that changes are warranted and within the original scope of the project, Lazarus said.
“We want to make sure that we are consistent with what council approved,” Lazarus said. “Sometimes [change orders] are a necessary evil.”
Lazarus said the Barrington Oaks project change orders have been a result of unforeseen conditions underground. For this project, the water utility set aside contingency money totaling five percent of the total cost. Lazarus said since the change orders exceed that contingency, the utility will pull money from a pool it keeps to pay for unforeseen costs. Generally, the utility can also pull money from other projects or scratch other projects if costs rise high enough.
In Barrington Oaks, the change order approved Thursday brings the total construction cost up to $1.93 million, from $1.59 million—a 21 percent increase.
Lazarus said that although this project rises above the city standard for change orders, the city as a whole manages to keep the total amount of changes orders at about five percent, which is an accepted industry benchmark.
A certain stench
The construction to replace the neighborhood’s 8-inch asbestos-concrete wastewater line with a PVC pipe twice its size is an upgrade, but some residents have been
complaining about a smell since construction began.
The project has moved past Michelle Lane’s house, but now there’s a sewer smell in the air at times, she said.
“It’s more noticeable in the early morning and evening,” she told KXAN Wednesday afternoon. “Last night, at 8:30, it smelled bad.”
Bowsher said there is a high level of sewer gas in the neighborhood, but he had not heard much about smell complaints.
The city, however, has received complaints about a putrid scent in the air in the neighborhood, according to city documents. Lane said she is one of a few residents that have filed formal complaints. She said she’s lived in the neighborhood for nearly a decade, and the smell was not present before the construction, she said.
Lane said she hopes the city can find and eliminate the cause of the gassy smell in the air.
It is not clear what is causing the smell, Lane said. There is no evidence that the contractor is at fault for any odors.
Steve Staas has smelled it, too. Staas said he hasn’t complained about the scent, in fact he’s used to it being a plumber.
Staas said that since construction has neared his home, the air has reeked on occasion. He lives about quarter mile from Lane.
Is it “so bad that it’s a health hazard? No,” Staas said. “Enough to be noticeable, oh yeah.”