As construction of the three Panther Island bridges stretches into its fifth year, recent developments are expected to help the process move along quicker.
Sterling Construction of House was recently given a multi-million-dollar payment to resolve its complaints that it has not been paid for extra costs for the bridges, which were originally scheduled for completion in 2018.
The company recently received a payment of more than $15 million, company attorney Frank Hill acknowledged. The Texas Department of Public Transportation listed a $15.9 million payment to the contractor during December as part of an open records request by the Fort Worth Business Press.
TxDOT’s December payment to the contractor stood out from other monthly payments from payments received in each month during 2019 for work on the bridges. Other monthly amounts varied from $38,500 to $1.9 million.
TxDOT did not specify whether the monthly money was part of the $68 million that partners in the Panther Island project put aside to pay for bridge construction.
It is unclear whether the $15.9 million included a monthly installment payment from the construction pot as well as the $15 million lump-sum payment. Local officials have not responded to inquiries about the payment.
Hill, an Arlington attorney, has complained repeatedly about back payment owed to Sterling as a result of delays, which he blames on ongoing problems with the bridge design.
“We’re at a pivotal point and we’ve got to get these issues resolved,” Hill told the Business Press several months ago. “We are ready, willing and able to go forward but we have to know how and when we are going to be paid.”
Hill has also acknowledged that the contractor has previously received smaller payments to cover cost overruns.
The bridges are a 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, work that will be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The flood control measures are expected to carve out new waterside economic development opportunities, including a center island.
The bridges will eventually provide a connection over the channel to Panther Island but are now being constructed over dry land.
TxDOT and the city of Fort Worth share management of the project because two of the bridges, Henderson and North Main streets, are part of the state highway system. White Settlement Road is a Fort Worth city street.
The bridges 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 Trinity River Vision Authority, a subsidiary of the water district, manages the entire project.
Construction delays, design snafus and other problems have plagued progress and the only completion schedule reported in during 2019 stretched construction until end of 2020 and early 2021.
City and water district leaders have repeatedly said no additional money will be paid to the Sterling until the bridges are complete and cost overruns can be balanced against offsets for road closures and other stipulations in the contract.
Hill has acknowledged ongoing negotiations with TxDOT to recover money owed for overruns sooner than the time the bridges are completed. Sterling has a long history of successfully contracting with TxDOT on major construction projects, he said.
The lump-sum payment to the contractor apparently flowed through the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the regional planning agency for transportation and other projects and needs, including economic development and aging services.
“Our office is responsible for a process to pay cost overruns on this project, just like we are for every other project we fund,” Michael Morris, director of transportation for the Council of Governments, said in an email.
“In this case, because of design, higher costs is not a surprising final outcome,” Morris stated.
However, he stated the bridge project’s contingency fund may be able to over the overruns, he said.
“In my mind, we had a significant contingency on them,” Morris said.
Morris also stated that an upcoming meeting will take place where information will be presented with “the cost overrun and the method of how it was developed for each party. This is an assignment of cost and a review of possible funding agencies.”
TxDOT and the Council of Governments had originally submitted the design of the 7th Street bridge for the Panther Island bridges but it was rejected because it did not meet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrology requirements, Morris said.
The V-pier design that was chosen has presented construction challenges and delays but the Freese and Nichols has disputed that the design was 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 addresses issues within our control as we have become aware of them.”
Although TxDOT officials were scheduled to present a bridge update to the TRVA meeting on Jan. 8, the presentation was postponed until next month.
Meanwhile, Doug Rademaker, a Fort Worth city project manager for the bridges, announced at the Jan. 8 meeting that Sterling workers are now on-site seven days a week to speed up construction.
At the same time, Mark Mazzanti, a former Army Corps executive who was recently hired as project manager for the Panther Island project, said the Henderson Street bridge must be complete by July 2021 to keep the project on schedule.
The bridges are not the only aspect of the project this is struggling. Local partners, which have already invested $324 million in the Panther Island project, are resorting to issuing commercial paper bonds to pay bills.
The Corps authorized $526 million to be spent on digging a 1.5-mile channel on the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth. But the project has only received about $68 million, all of which was appropriated before President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
Local officials are awaiting word of a federal appropriation from the Corps’ 2020 budget to keep the project moving forward. That announcement could come as soon as February.