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Commission approves WTP 4 construction manager process

Friday, January 9, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

The Water and Wastewater Commissioners met in a special called meeting on Wednesday to recommend using the Construction Manager at Risk method for building Water Treatment Plant 4. Commissioners had delayed voting on the issue last month when several commissioners had requested more information about the method.


Construction Manager at Risk (CM-R) is an alternative, recently authorized by the state legislature, now available for utilities. The traditional method involves the process of design, bid and build, with financial risk to the city at each step.


Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility called this, “more of a qualification-based” method. “You don’t just select on low bid, you look at the qualities of the firm, the staff that they’re bringing, their previous experience on projects like this – the cost is an element but you look at it more as a quality based selection process as opposed to just a low bid selection process,” he told In Fact Daily.


He said such a method was preferable in instances where a project was considered a higher risk, and where a collaborative effort was important and included less risk of cost overrun due to a “guaranteed maximum price.” Meszaros said a large project like WTP 4 would have “dozens, if not hundreds, of subcontractors helping to build the plant but we’ll have one firm that specializes in this kind of plant work that we can go to.” This single firm would be responsible for the entire project’s completion.


Meszaros said that working with so many different companies increases the likelihood that one company could have a problem. If a company does go under, it will be the responsibility of the overseeing firm to fix the problem and do so under-budget. Meszaros joked, “I call it ‘one throat to choke.’”


Pre-construction on WTP4 is set to begin in the fall of 2009 and continue through spring of the following year. The CM-R would work from fall of 2010 through 2014.


This holistic approach is often used in large private endeavors and large school projects. The University of Texas, Meszaros said, uses this process and Austin’s City Hall was built using the Cm-R method. “I think you’ll see it used more and more,” he said, cautioning, “it’s not for every project because it’s a little more complicated.”


Commissioner Gwendolyn Webb told her colleagues that she initially had some concern with the method, all of which were assuaged upon learning more. Webb was concerned that the process would shut out public input and may have affected “community participation” in the construction. She told the Commission after meeting with Meszaros’ staff and reading up on CM-R she was assured that the project would be adequately accountable to the public and that local MBE/WBE would receive consideration.


Commissioner Sarah Baker voted against authorization saying that her issues reflected objections from an environmental perspective to the existence of the plant at all. “Since this is combining the design and build methods and moving this forward without a comprehensive (water and wastewater) plan… I’m going to be voting against it,” she said.


Commissioners Mario Espinoza, Cheryl Scott-Ryan and Webb voted in favor, and Chien Lee abstained. The CM-R authorization will come to the City Council on Jan 15.

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