MoPac toll delays provide lessons for future projects

Traffic on MoPac as construction continues (KXAN Photo)
Traffic on MoPac as construction continues (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After years of waiting, drivers are now hopping onto the MoPac Express Lane to whiz by traffic. As they do, other commuters remain stuck in a sea of red taillights and construction cones, with months left to wait for the entire North MoPac project to come to an end.

As the MoPac Improvement Project gets closer to completion, new construction is just getting underway. The organization overseeing the project, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), is also undertaking work on toll lanes on US 183 and SH 45SW.

Lessons for future projects are hidden in a project plagued by delays.

“I think the fact that orange barrels are out slows people down a lot,” said Michele Stephens, who now regularly uses the MoPac Express Lane. “The activity on the side of the road makes people want to look and slows them down.”

Stephens is one of the thousands of drivers using the open northbound MoPac Express Lane. She believes it shaves time off of her trip. On the day KXAN tagged along on her ride, Stephens kept a steady pace in the Express Lane cruising at 65 mph while the general traffic lanes slowed to a crawl.

So what happened?

A myriad of issues arose during construction, but the executive director of the CTRMA, Mike Heiligenstein, says the problems date back to the beginning and the bid of the winning contractor CH2M Hill.

Monitors inside CTRMA allow employees to monitor the traffic on North MoPac (KXAN Photo/Amanda Dugan)
Monitors inside CTRMA allow employees to monitor the traffic on North MoPac (KXAN Photo/Amanda Dugan)

“It is abundantly clear that the genesis of the extreme problems that this project has suffered are the result of the fact that CH2M grossly underbid the project (as we questioned CH2M about several times before we accepted its bid) and the wholly inadequate methodologies your firm has employed to prosecute this job,” wrote Heiligenstein in a July 21, 2016 email to Jaqueline Hinman, the CEO of CH2M.

“Delays stretch back to when the original survey work was being done, I believe,” Heiligenstein said in an interview with KXAN. “I think that they underestimated the cost of the project. There’s no question about that.”

CH2M submitted the winning bid of $136.6 million, nearly $35 million below the original engineer’s estimate for construction and more than $60 million below the next lowest bidder, according to CTRMA records.

The contractor, CH2M, deferred to the mobility authority and declined an on-camera interview, but its financial filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission give a glimpse into what company leadership views as problems along the way.

“The cost growth was primarily caused by design delays for a water main relocation, the discovery of extremely hard and abrasive rock during construction, differing site conditions, unidentified and mismarked utilities, client requested changes, labor supply challenges in the construction market, lower than expected labor productivity, and severe adverse weather delays,” a quarterly reported filed in August stated.

Emails obtained under the Texas Public Information Act also detail turnover in management of the project. From April 2013 through late 2015 top leaders were leaving, a chronology of events in CTRMA emails shows. CH2M named a new project manager four times, it had six different people fill the construction manager job and it had four different project schedulers.

A disputes board also acts as a mediator for specific issues between CH2M and the mobility authority.

“The delays experienced by CH2M (during construction of a water transmission line) were extensive and could not have been contemplated by either party. In addition, they made timely completion an impossibility,” stated part of a recommendation from the disputes board in February.

“‘I think the company and the mobility authority each could have done a better job,” said Baruch Feigenbaum assistant director of transportation policy at the free-market think tank Reason Foundation.

Feigenbaum says he does not believe the MoPac Improvement Project is unique. He also pointed out that Texas law favors the low bids.

“If you are in the public sector, you’re protecting the taxpayers, you’ve got to be on the lookout for private projects that are maybe too good to be true,” said Feigenbaum.

The Road Ahead

Already, the Central Texas Regional Mobility is using its experience to inform its future projects.

“I think we’ve learned here and in other situations that you really have to be careful about the low bid,” said Heiligenstein. “But you can’t just arbitrarily disregard the low bid because it could be valid.”

CTRMA is now working on 183 South, which is an eight-mile job from US 290 to SH 71. Heiligenstein says the authority accepted the second-lowest bid for the 183 South project.

On North MoPac, the job is not yet complete. Officials estimate completion by late spring of next year. The authority is also hoping something called concrete zip barriers help to speed up the MoPac project by several months.

Still, CTRMA board members questioned the early 2017 MoPac completion timeline in its October board meeting.

“What the contractor has been saying over the last several months since we had the slowdown in mid-summer… [the schedule] is showing early next year, and they’re on track for that,” CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dailey said at the October meeting. “The problem comes down to the paving. The colder weather… you can’t put down the PFC-type pavement unless it’s above 60 degrees. So that limits your ability to work other than the daytime.”

Dailey did not rule out the possibility of some daytime MoPac closures to pave in higher temperatures.

More than a year after the MoPac project was originally supposed to be completed, drivers are now preparing for a lane change referred to as the “MoPacalypse weekend” by CTRMA’s Steve Pustelnyk. It involves narrowing northbound MoPac down to one lane at Enfield and temporarily closing the Enfield exit. CTRMA currently has the temporary shift scheduled for the first weekend in December.