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CTRMA gets tough with tardy MoPac contractor

Thursday, July 28, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is adding some bite to its bark over the delayed MoPac Improvement Project.

On Wednesday, the CTRMA’s board of directors voted unanimously to give Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein the authority to start assessing financial penalties against CH2M, the engineering firm in charge of the project.

CH2M began the job in early 2014 with an eye on finishing in fall 2015. However, unexpected problems, including uncooperative weather and engineering issues, caused lengthy delays. At last month’s CTRMA board meeting, the board members were told that the project would be partially open by mid-July, another promised deadline that has come and gone unfulfilled.

On Wednesday, CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Jeff Dailey explained that a sudden worker shortage forced the latest delay. He said that the average number of workers on site each day just before the Fourth of July weekend was 350. Since the holiday, the average number has been 250 workers on site per day.

Dailey said that CH2M has provided no explanation for the worker drop-off.

“They just said that they reaffirm their commitment to put the resources back on,” said Dailey.

In a statement emailed to the Austin Monitor on Wednesday evening, CH2M spokeswoman Lorrie Crum echoed that affirmation. “We remain committed to completing this important capacity enhancement project for the benefit of the Greater Austin community,” Crum said.

The entire project is still only 70 percent complete, Dailey explained, and the northern segment is much further along than the southern stretch, from RM 2222 to Cesar Chavez Street. The work on that stretch is only 56 percent finished.

Despite the worker shortfall and the remaining work to be done, CH2M has pledged to have the northbound express lane from RM 2222 to Parmer Lane finished and open in August.

In the meantime, Heiligenstein is newly imbued with the power to start collecting damages that the mobility authority has already been accruing against the contractor. Dailey said those damages are set at $73,500 each day until the northbound lane is open and then $43,000 each day after that until the project is completely finished.

The only hitch is that the existing contract caps the damages at $20 million, and that limit has already been reached.

“Now some of that could change because there’s some contract changes, there’s claims that are in process that we’ve been working with CH2M on that could adjust the days” of accruement, Dailey explained. “So their total amount of exposure could go down, but that’s unknown at this time.”

He said that even with the daily penalties already at their maximum limit, CH2M has plenty of incentive to get the project done quickly.

“Every day they’re out there, it costs them money to have staff on site,” said Dailey.

As a last resort, Heiligenstein also now has the power spelled out in the contract to declare CH2M in default of its obligations. That decision could trigger a series of drastic steps that could ultimately result in the termination of the contract. Dailey emphasized that the contractor appears to be “on track” to avoid that contingency.

On top of its expectations to have the northbound segment open in August, CH2M has also pledged to have the entire project complete by the end of the year. Dailey told the board that work in the cooler months could require the use of a temporary paving on limited sections.

That stopgap could require repaving of those sections in as little as a year or as much as seven years, Dailey said.

Board Member David Armbrust was the sole voice on the dais to pursue discussion with Dailey following the latter’s briefing. Armbrust, one of three Travis County appointees, offered what he called a “public relations comment.”

“If everything has to fall in place perfectly to open by a particular date, I don’t think we ought to announce that date publicly,” recommended Armbrust. “I think we should announce dates that are realistic so that each month we don’t have to read, ‘It’s been delayed again. It’s been delayed again and again.’”

Photo courtesy of the MoPac Improvement Project website. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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