Bridge Battle: Contractor cites cost overruns, management for delays

🕐 5 min read

The contractor constructing the three Panther Island bridges is ramping its efforts to be paid for cost overruns and resolve other outstanding issues that could further delay completion of the overdue project and add millions more to the cost.

Frank Hill, an attorney for Houston-based Sterling Construction Co., said the project is one of the “worst managed” and “bureaucratic bungled” projects Sterling has encountered in many years of contracting with The Texas Department of Transportation on road projects.

“We’re at a pivotal point and we’ve got to get these issues resolved,” Hill said. “We are ready, willing and able to go forward but we have to know how and when we are going to be paid.”

“The contractor has been paid for all work performed,” said TxDOT spokesman Val Lopez. “No money has been withheld.”

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The bridges are one piece of the $1.17 billion Panther Island project that is designed to improve flood control by rechanneling the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth. The flood control measures are expected to carve out new waterside economic development opportunities, including a center island.

The project has been beset by a myriad of problems, including a shortfall of anticipated federal funds, and is now undergoing a comprehensive review to determine ways to rescue it from sinking.

The bridges, the most publicly visible sign of progress on the project, have been mired in delays and other problems. Construction of the bridges began in 2014 with anticipated completion dates staggered between 2017 and 2018.

TxDOT and the city of Fort Worth share management of the project because two of the bridges, on Henderson and North Main streets, are part of the state highway system. White Settlement Road is a Fort Worth city street.

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The bridges, originally estimated to cost $65 million, were funded with state and federal funds as well as local money from the project partners of the city, Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District.

The contractor is alleging cost overruns of “north of $10 million,” for bridge construction, Hill said.

“Right now, we’re looking for $1.3 million that TxDOT has approved but we have not yet received,” Hill said. “We don’t want to have to walk off the job, but we have to be compensated.”

Doug Rademaker, senior capital projects officer for the city, told the Fort Worth Business Press recently that the contractor has a pending claim for more than 200 days of additional work.

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Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said TxDOT typically settles its contractor claims for cost overruns when a project is completed.

The contractor, a billion-dollar, publicly-traded company, has real concerns about the ability of project managers to pay the company.

“Where is the money going to from?” Hill said. “The federal money has come and we have serious doubts about the city, county or water district to have available funds to pay for it.

“This underscores the foolishness of initiating a project without understanding what it’s going to cost and how to pay for it,” Hill said.

TxDOT’s official schedule has the bridges being completed on a staggered schedule between late 2020 and 2021.

But a TxDOT representative told a group of frustrated White Settlement Road business owners, who have suffered business losses because of the bridge construction, that those dates are not firm.

Hill said bridge construction could drag on beyond those dates if “fundamentally flawed” design problems and unreasonable demands for construction methods aren’t remedied.

Bridge work delays as a result of a “malfunction of design” was acknowledged by TxDOT officials in March 2016. In June 2017, the TRVA board was informed that the issues had been resolved, according to Fort Worth Business Press archives.

Freese and Nichols, the engineering firm that designed the V-pier bridges, disputed the claim that the design is to blame.

“We have full confidence in our design of the bridges,” company officials said in a statement. “Multiple independent reviewers have confirmed the suitability, structural integrity and constructability of the design.

“As further verification, a test mockup of the V-pier demonstrated that the bridges can be constructed as designed,” the company said. “Minor design clarifications are typical on complex projects, and Freese and Nichols has promptly addressed issues within our control as we have become aware of them.”

Hill said an unusually high number of change orders have occurred during construction of this project.

The latest grievance involves a change in procedure for removing bridge forms, similar to scaffolding, that is potentially is dangerous for construction workers and could extend the project by as much as six months or more and an another $10 million to the cost, Hill said.

A safer and less expensive method recommended by the contractor had been approved by TxDOT about six months ago.

The contractor isn’t the only one with questions about bridge construction and why it is taking so long.

“What was supposed to be a 2.5-year project is now in its fifth year,” said District 7 City Council Member Dennis Shingleton remarked recently.

Fort Worth businessman Bill Meadows, chairman of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport board and a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, said the bridges could have been completed within two years had the TRVA chosen the 7th Street bridge design.

As a member of the transportation commission, the oversight agency of TxDOT, Meadows had helped facilitate an offer to use the 7th Street design molds for the Panther Island bridges. That move would have reduced the cost and length of construction time.

But J.D. Granger recommended against dropping the V-Pier design because the U.S. Corps of Engineers had signed off on the design in its authorization to make the Panther Island project eligible for $526 million in federal funds. The federal money would go toward digging the channel as part of the flood control measures.

Granger, the son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, is executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA).

“There are definitely some issues with the bridges,” Meadows said. “We are able to build a new multi-million arena here in less time than it’s taken to build those three bridges.”

Furthermore, he said, “we demolished the old 7th Street bridge and built a whole new one in six months.”

Hill said he was aware of a series of meetings regarding the bridges among the partners in project, which include the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District and the water district’s Panther Island management agency, the Trinity River Vision Authority.

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