Travis County chooses method to build new courthouse

This article has been amended since it was originally published.

Travis County Commissioners Court has decided how it wants to build a proposed new civil and family courthouse.

On July 23, after months of researching public-private partnerships, the court approved using the more familiar design-build format for the project's first phase.

As the name suggests, a design-build format features a single firm handling both design and construction responsibilities. County documents say the format offers more price and schedule certainty but less design control and a limited warranty for the county.

The court may approve a final contract with engineering firm URS on Sept. 3. County documents suggest that URS may work on Phase 1 from September 2013 to May 2014. The firm has estimated that building the courthouse using a design-build format would cost roughly $284.4 million.

Voters will get their chance to weigh in on the project: commissioners said they plan to place bond funding for the courthouse on a future ballot.

"Given that we have to go to voters, what we're really looking to do is [to answer], 'What is the best method to get this thing done?'" Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said.

Judge Lora Livingston urged the court to make a decision during its July 23 meeting.

"What I want you to know is that we need a new courthouse. You know that as well as I do. We need it to move forward," she said. "We need whatever decision you make, and I hope it's one of the top two choices, public-private partnership or design-build."


The county hired URS to conduct pre-initiation services, including analyzing the four possible formats, summarizing their pros and cons and helping the court reach its decision.

The court had considered four options to build the courthouse: design-build, design-bid-build, construction manager at risk and a public-private partnership. URS explained each scenario in county documents available to the public.

Design-bid-build is the most common format; a project is designed, bid out and then built by a contractor. Design-bid-build projects offer well-defined roles and certainty of design but few innovations and susceptibility to cost overruns.

The construction manager at risk format can speed up the project and be highly collaborative but is not proven to lower costs and has less direct communication between entities.

In a public-private partnership, the private entity is responsible for financing and long-term operations, maintenance and rehabilitation. The county must pay a portion of construction costs once the building has been built because the private entity self-finances the remainder of the building costs over 30 years. This format offers price certainty and allows the county to transfer risk to a private entity, but it is also the newest format and is highly complex.

The county wants contractors to build both the courthouse and the underground parking structure with the same kind of delivery agreement.


Court members said there was a need for a new courthouse and supported building it.

The county's consultants had recommended a public-private partnership, but court members were apprehensive—partnerships work best when the property generates income, something the courthouse wouldn't do.

Commissioner Bruce Todd compared the courthouse process to the city of Austin bond to build Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

"We got that thing built in six years. We are four years into this [project], and we have not made any major choices," he said.

Todd made a motion to support the public-private partnership format, but it died for lack of a second motion.

Daugherty said he supported the construction of the new courthouse.

"As elected officials, one of our first responsibilities is justice," he said. "If people question whether or not we need a new courthouse, all we would need to do is schedule a walk-through with our judges, and [citizens] would see why it's so important that we need to move forward with this and [build it]."

Commissioner Ron Davis said he did not want to do anything that jeopardized the county's AAA bond rating.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez agreed with Davis, adding that she supported transferring risk away from the county. She also pledged to be transparent with the community and requested more information about the full cost of the project.

Livingston said 300,000 people use the county courthouse every year.

Austin Bar Association President Christopher Oddo echoed Livingston's comments of support for the new courthouse.

"The courts need it, the practitioners need it, but most importantly, the ever-growing populace of Travis County needs it," he said. "I applaud you for the years of research and diligence you put into this project. It's very important."

Philip Lawhon, a representative from the local chapter of an electricians' union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said the majority of the building trade unions support building the courthouse and using the design-build format.

"It's a much clearer version of the development of this project, not only to [the county] but to the community, the citizens in Travis County," he said. "It will also help ensure that during the construction work, that these contractors will pay the prevailing wage rates. It will ensure that the apprentice workers will have a great avenue through the apprenticeship program. We filter individuals into that program through Capital Idea and Skillpoint Alliance."

He added that design-build would offer more control and better benefits for workers and their families.

By Joe Olivieri
Joe covered Southwest Austin news for Community Impact Newspaper from January 2011 to April 2015. His reporting focused on new businesses, development, transportation, industry and Travis County issues. He was named the paper's managing editor in April 2015. Joe hails from New Jersey.


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