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A $1 Billion Work Program May Create Problems, But They’re Still Good Problems to Have

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Ken Janke speaks with Waco's D.E. Richard Skopik and Director of Construction Duane Schwarz before their area meeting.

Ten years ago, it would have been unheard of for TxDOT to let a contractor begin work on a project before ROW and utility relocation had been secured and resolved. Now, that’s the norm. While contractors sit idle waiting for resolution they must file claims for delay, costing the department money. But changing attitudes in Austin cause ripples everywhere, and the department has to obligate money as soon as it becomes available. With over a billion dollars under contract by the end of this year, these are the types of problems created by a healthy work program. In other words: good problems to have.

Right now, there are seven projects on I-35 from Hillsboro to South of Salado totaling over $900 million. The work is being performed by four contractors: James Construction, Lane Construction, Williams Bros., and Webber. An additional project estimated at $200 million is scheduled to let in September so that by the beginning of 2013 there will be around $1.1 billion under contract just on I-35 alone. This is huge for Waco—by far, the biggest amount of work under contract in the district’s history.

I used to work for the TxDOT district in the mid-seventies. Around that time, working in Waco was very difficult for a contractor. It has come around in my mind to be the best district to work for, and a lot of that is the leadership of Richard Skopik. Good leaders have good people working for them, and as good a leaders as Skopik is, we rarely have to bend his ear since the good people of the Waco District know how to resolve most of what comes their way.

Waco also benefits from the fact that the district is run by men and women smart enough to know when they need help. The district is neither equipped, nor was it designed, to manage this much work at one time. And there’s no sense in bolstering their workforce, since the program will shrink back to its normal size after the next five years. For now, Waco is outsourcing some of the work to consultants and other TxDOT offices.

The Austin District is handling a few of the projects in the southern portion of the district. Tim Weight has been influential in pushing these projects forward even amidst the confusion inherent in a new department process. We are also seeing inspections outsourced. Obviously, we would all rather see TxDOT perform its own inspections and have spoken about this at length at the monthly meetings. But because of their staffing predicament, they just don’t have enough boots on the ground. The contractors want assurance that TxDOT will maintain control of the project at all times, and have requested that the consultants have some TxDOT experience. While we understand TxDOT’s predicament; we just need make sure oversight is increased just like we would do with our own companies.

For these I-35 Corridor projects, rightof- way acquisition and utility relocation have posed the biggest and most enduring obstacles on the job. This is probably not surprising to many: the Waco District was instructed to put acquisition and relocation along I-35 on hold for the Trans- Texas Corridor. When the TTC misadventure was abolished, Waco got the I-35 projects almost immediately but had not bought up the right of way. The department is still in negotiations some year and a half later.

The utility relocations are hindered primarily due to the right of way delays. But even when ROW is secured, there are still the utility companies to deal with. In the case of AT&T fiber optics, it’s another work force problem. The contractors can move the lines, trench, pull cables, et cetera, but AT&T crews have to do the tie-ins. Just like TxDOT and the contractors working in this area, they don’t staff for this amount of work. In the case of some of the other utility companies—well, your guess is as good as mine.

Other problems typical of getting big projects in a short period of time include getting quality materials and quality hires. At the beginning of this year, James Construction may have had around one hundred people working on the job at one time. By the end of this year, we will probably have around four times that many. Of course, with civil construction and road hands, they will go to where the work is so this is not as much of a show-stopper as it could be. Plus, as a silver lining to all the utility and ROW delays, contractors have time to hire more slowly.

With all these moving (or not moving) parts, I have to stress that the Waco District, led by Richard Skopik, is a great district to work for. There is a lot of stress involved with over a billion work program and we still get the same treatment at our area meetings as we are accustomed to. We meet with them every two months, and Andy Petter hands out a printed list of upcoming projects at every meeting. Every meeting is a forecast Rentals • Sales • Service • Supplies 800-UR-RENTS unitedrentals.com Consider it done.tm • The largest inventory of trench safety rental protective systems • Competent person training • Expert trench safety plans designed by a Registered Professional Engineer • Online account management and analysis tools at no charge through URdata® technology The Underground Equipment Specialist® meeting now. We used to have one only once a year, but this works out so much better. It’s good to know what’s coming.

The projects list also helps our agenda dramatically. Over the last couple of years, we really haven’t had any big issues with Waco so there isn’t much to discuss besides the future work program. The associate members also do a good job filling us in regarding intelligence on materials shortages and the like.

One downside to our consistently well-informed contractors is that it makes our big, annual forecast meeting significantly less impressive. This has adversely affected our PAC initiatives, so the area is now considering either doing more tournaments or creating a more impressive event we can bring our wives to.

In any case, The Waco District and its contractors are in great shape, notwithstanding the growing pains inherent in a little district with a giant work program. As area chairman, I hope to use this time to stress how important future funding is to our industry. We have many, many more roads to build here as thousands are moving here every day. I stress the need to speak with our legislators and civic groups to educate our neighbors and community leaders on funding. I look to the Highway Funding Task Force, who has done a great job on its deliverables, for helping us in this uphill battle. It will be the public that educates the legislators, and we must make sure they have the facts.

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