Five years after the project was first planned, and two months after it was expected to be complete, the expansion of Woodlands Parkway between Grogan’s Mill Road and East Panther Creek Drive is only halfway done. The project’s contractor, Kingwood-based Menade Inc., has come under fire from local mobility planners, while the Texas Department of Transportation has also taken heat for its management of the project.
The $3.6 million expansion is being funded primarily by TxDOT, while The Woodlands Road Utility District No. 1 is paying for 20 percent of its cost.
Menade President Jerry Wade said his company is increasing its efforts on the work site and coordination between Menade, TxDOT and subcontractors has improved enough that the new lanes could be complete and open to traffic by April. But in the meantime, the company is being charged for running hundreds of days behind schedule.
“On this project [Menade] may have bitten off more than they can chew,” said James Noack, Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner. “Sometimes that happens with contractors. I think maybe the project was more complicated for them than they anticipated.”
Despite the claims against Menade, the Woodlands Parkway expansion project faced delays before construction began. The bidding process—the competitive process by which contractors submit bids in hopes of being awarded a particular project—was delayed by nearly a year.
Robert Heineman, vice president of planning for The Woodlands Development Company, said changes in the environmental review process, a mandated step before a project goes to bid, pushed back the bid approval until August 2012, eight months after construction was to begin. Heineman said when Woodlands Parkway was expanded between I-45 and Grogan’s Mill Road in 2010, it changed the scope of the expansion between Grogan’s Mill and East Panther Creek, requiring another environmental study.
TxDOT Houston District spokeswoman Deidrea Samuels said the department’s standard selection process for choosing contractors for projects, which follows state law, is to select the contractor that submits the lowest bid.
Noack said he thinks the requirement that TxDOT choose a contractor based solely on price is not the best way to make such a choice.
“This is what happens when you go with the lowest bidder,” Noack said. “There is no perfect way of picking a contractor. Using price as your sole basis is never good. I want to see a contractor that has a track record, that has the experience and resources for that particular project. TxDOT should not be solely looking at price.”
Menade submitted the lowest bid on the project, $2.8 million, to widen Woodlands Parkway by one lane on both the east and westbound lanes, a nearly 1-mile segment that includes a section over a dam on the southern end of Lake Woodlands.
Despite the bid being awarded to Menade in August 2012, work did not begin on Woodlands Parkway until Nov. 26, 2012, according to TxDOT documents.
“There were initial delays because of utility relocations and design errors,” Samuels said. “Menade Inc. has also had some scheduling delays.”
Wade said drilling on the Lake Woodlands dam has come at a much slower pace than originally expected.
“We’re having some problems out there,” he said. “Whenever they built the lake, the backfill [on the dam] was about 20 feet of rock. You can’t drill through rock, so we’ve been working over there for a month.”
Wade said other issues have caused significant delays in the project, including redesigning plans for the bridge over Lake Woodlands.
“That cost about 30 days to re-bar and for new plans to be drawn up,” he said.
Relocating gas and water lines, and scheduling available workers to perform the relocations, pushed the project back months, Wade said.
“We had to find another drilling contractor, and you just don’t pick one out of the yellow pages and find one,” he said. “So that took two to three weeks. I had to spend $20,000 out of my own pocket to get that guy out there.”
Richard Derr, spokesman for the RUD, said issues with TxDOT have also led to delays.
“[Menade] couldn’t get paid until the [TxDOT] project manager came out and approved their work,” Derr said. “[Menade was] getting held up by long periods of time. The survey guy [TxDOT] hired, he got mad and walked off the job, and in the process, magically the surveying stakes disappeared.”
Derr said the surveying stakes were put in place to help level newly laid pavement with the rest of the road.
“That held it up for probably three weeks with nobody working,” he said.
According to TxDOT, the manager on the project, Don Norwood, retired from the department in April.
“There is a formal claims process for state contractors to use for such matters that requires a review and response to them by TxDOT,” Samuels said.
TxDOT representatives declined to comment specifically on the claims of any alleged issues with the project manager on the Woodlands Parkway expansion.
“There are probably some things going on on both sides of the fence,” Derr said.
While freezing temperatures in late January delayed workers a bit on the south side of the Woodlands Parkway project, Wade said finding available concrete has been difficult because construction on the Grand Parkway has started.
“You just can’t get concrete,” he said. “Every contractor in town is out there working on [Grand Parkway]. So we have to wait a whole other week. Getting material and concrete has been a factor.”
Noack said he has often driven along Woodlands Parkway and seen no or very few workers working on the project.
“I typically make a mental note of how many people are there and there are many times when I have driven by on nice sunny days, and there is no one there,” he said. “It’s very rare you see an entire construction crew on-site for whatever reason.”
Wade, however, disputes the notion crews are not working on the project.
“I challenge them to tell me when they didn’t see people [working] out there,” he said.
TxDOT’s contract with Menade allowed for 246 working days to complete the Woodlands Parkway expansion. As of late January, Menade had worked on the project for 251 days, five more than it had agreed to.
Samuels said the contract with Menade includes a function that charged the contractor for going past the agreed-upon deadline.
“The contractor can be assessed charges of $785 per day for time spent to deliver the job beyond the allocated contract time,” she said.
Samuels said Menade is running over its agreed-upon schedule and will be charged daily Mondays through Fridays.
At that rate, Menade has so far been charged $3,925 in liquidated damages. Based on the company’s current rate of progress, it will take Menade a total of 627.5 days to complete the Woodlands Parkway expansion, which would result in liquidated damages of $299,477.
Noack said Menade has been paying the liquidated damage fees to TxDOT regularly.