MoPac project delays push end date into 2016

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NWA-2015-08-01-3-01After months of dealing with delays, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority announced July 29 the MoPac Improvement Project will not finish until late 2016.

This new end date is one year from the original finish date of this fall. The delay is the result of a slew of issues contractor CH2M has faced, ranging from a lack of labor to inclement weather, unknown underground utilities and hard rock, said Craig Martell, executive director of special projects for CH2M.

“We’ve tried to go above and beyond to do the things we felt needed to be done to try to preserve the schedule and expedite the schedule,” he said.

Whether these issues will affect the total project cost depends on how the two parties resolve disputed issues causing delays, Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said.

Project process

The MoPac project will add one toll lane in each direction on MoPac between Parmer Lane and Cesar Chavez Street. Tolls will be based on variable pricing, meaning the cost varies depending on the volume of traffic in the toll lanes.

The Mobility Authority chose a design-build process for the project in which 30 percent of the schematic design is completed before seeking bids from firms to design the rest of the project and build it, Heiligenstein said. This allows a contractor to begin some construction before the design is finished.

In a more traditional design-bid-build process, all engineering and design work is completed and then handed over to a contractor. Heiligenstein said the Mobility Authority chose the design-build process to save time and money.

“That saved us a year that we’ve subsequently eaten up, but it did save us a year,” Heiligenstein said. “In some respects we are where we would have been with a design-bid-build.”

Given the experience with design-build on the MoPac project, he said the Mobility Authority likely would not pursue the same process for the proposed MoPac South express lanes project.

Heiligenstein said he first noticed schedule delays when CH2M was completing the rest of the engineering and design plans. The plans included building an underpass connecting the toll lane to Fifth and Cesar Chavez streets.

Martell said the city of Austin undertook the design for relocating a 42-inch water main near Camp Mabry, but the subconsultant the city hired took more than five months to complete that work.

“Even though our contract says we’re liable for third-party activities such as that, you go into it making reasonable assumptions about how long things take,” he said. “When they [take longer]it pushes the schedule out.”

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Downtown delays

By the end of 2015 most of the project north of RM 2222 will be nearly complete, Heiligenstein said. The area has fewer sound walls being installed, and the corridor is not as tight as other areas. Crews have completed most paving for the new lanes in the northern end of the project, and bridge expansions will be done by late 2015, said Steve Pustelnyk, director of community relations for the MoPac project.

“It’s subtle, but there’s major progress in spots here and there,” he said.

The area causing the most delay is the downtown underpass. CH2M relocated the existing main lanes and exit ramps to allow workers into the area for excavation. Heavy rains in May and June delayed finishing the Lake Austin Boulevard exit ramp relocation, Martell said.

To expedite the work, CH2M proposed shifting all traffic to the outside of the corridor, giving construction crews full access to build the underpass in the center.

Martell said CH2M completed a traffic study and met with several groups and the city about the proposed traffic shift and did not get much pushback.

“[The public] gets the fact that in order for us to undertake this improvement there are going to be certain concessions that have to be made,” he said. “From our perspective, because it didn’t impact the level of service, we felt pretty comfortable in proposing it.”

That traffic shift could have shaved four to six months off the schedule, Martell said. However, the Mobility Authority thought it would impede traffic and denied the request, Heiligenstein said.

The Mobility Authority could consider other time-saving suggestions from CH2M, Martell said. One recommendation is opening parts of the project in early 2016, most likely the section north of RM 2222.

“They’re moving forward in almost all elements in a timely fashion,” Heiligenstein said. “They just got so far behind they’re not going to catch that calendar back up. What we’re seeing right now is indicative of a contractor that realized that they were behind and took actions to rectify and remedy the situation.”

Despite the delays Heiligenstein said the extra wait will be worth it.

“It’s going to be a state-of-the-art facility when it’s done. …” he said. “We’ve still got a ways to go. I think it will be a blessing to those that find it useful.”

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Amy Denney

Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area. As senior editor, she is the point person for the company's partnership with Fox7 Austin.

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