Construction on Mopac is a familiar sight these days. It should have been a two-year project. But, with all of the delays, it looks as though that date could have stretched into 2017. Because of that, contractor CH2M put on "notice" just before the holidays.
CH2M hasn't been fired yet, and they are continuing with the work.
"Eventually they'll be an underpass under here that will get 1st and 6th street underneath Mopac and out to the future express lanes," says Steve Pustelnyk pointing to the mound of rock that's being dug into.
Pustelnyk is the spokesperson for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the group in charge of the project. Fox 7 rode with Pustelnyk for a tour along the eleven mile construction route. Part of the project includes installing sound barriers to separate neighborhoods that sit on Mopac from the traffic noise. "We are putting in about 7 miles of wall," he says, adding, "and so there be pretty much walls to Cesar Chavez all the way up to 2222."
"December we really should have seen substantial completion," says the Mobility Authority's Executive Director, Mike Heiligenstein about the delays. "We had to get some attention, we had to make sure that the contractor knew that we were for real, that we were very concerned about the progress of the project."
Mopac still has all three lanes open in each direction, so while the construction only seems to be an eyesore for drivers, the Mobility Authority is likely feeling the headache more than its commuters.
"You never issue a notice of default unless you are pretty serious," Heiligenstein says. "No one wants to do that, you don't want to go through that if you don't have to. But we felt like at that point that we had been without a verifiable schedule for a long enough period and that we had latched enough time."
He delivered the ultimatum to CH2M just before the holidays. "There are projects within a project and I'm not trying to justify their schedule issues but I think that they were genuinely surprised by some of the major project issues, construction issues that they ran into." But he says that's no excuse, "that's their problem not ours it ends up being all of our problem if it's not corrected."
He hopes CH2M is now on track to correct them. "That's why it's in the public's interest for us to continue coordinating with them, collaborating with them," he says, "working with them to get that schedule back on track." And he adds, "we want to be a partner with them not an adversary because we don't want this to end up in court."
The Mobility Authority ad CH2M have been meeting behind closed doors about a new timeline, and how CH2M plans to meet their milestones. But their grace period may be running out. "If we are not satisfied in the next couple of weeks," says Heiligenstein, "as to the progress of the schedule they will be getting further notices that they will not want to see."
Ch2m bid $137 million on the MOPAC project. Heiligenstein says they came in at least $50 million dollars less than another contractor. So they jumped at the chance to get the work at such a good deal. "Once they got into it," he says, "I don't believe they had the right equipment, man power, resources, everything was deficient."
Looking back Heiligenstein says, "I think $200 million was the proper proposal." But that's hindsight, and now the project's budget has ballooned. "There may be instances in the project where they have a right to claim some conditions, that's in any job but that's a relatively minor numbers."
And Heiligenstein says CH2M will have to "eat the entire cost over and above those claims, I would offer that they are eating everything probably up to a $100 million."
The end date is now likely to be late this year. Heiligenstein says even though they have yet to reach an agreement with CH2M, he is confident they will be the one that finishes the work. "We believe there's a good faith effort on their part to improve the performance and get the number of people on the job that we need on the job."
That's just in time for the Mobility Authority to get started on their next major road, expanding both sides of 183 at 71. The improvement project is scheduled to have 12 lanes, 6 continuous toll and 4-6 on the access road.
Heiligenstein says he is using the mistakes made on Mopac. "We estimated at about $600 million, roughly, we had a bid in the like $480 range, and we had another bid at $575, we went with the $575." And he adds, "so we took what we learned on this one, and said okay, is the low bid on 183, which is now the largest infrastructure project in the entire region. It tops out at $750 million, that's a big project."
A big project that hopefully that won't cause as many big headaches.
While the Mobility Authority has yet to work out a new agreement with CH2M, they say the conversations are ongoing. They have until mid-February to do so. The Mobility Authority tells Fox 7, at that point they will take a hard look at what needs to be done to get the project finished.
Fox 7 reached out to CH2M for comment, but they have yet to respond.