|daily menu » rate the banner | guess the city | one on one|
|April 26th, 2005, 03:05 AM||#1|
Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Metro Miami
Likes (Received): 0
Plans to complete Houston's next four rail lines 4 years earlier than expected
April 18, 2005, 1:33AM
Metro debate about time, money
Alternate construction method for rails could save both — or maybe not
By RAD SALLEE
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
The four proposed MetroRail lines are running late. And to get back on schedule, the agency is seeking help from the Legislature.
Metropolitan Transit Authority officials say a change in the law that specifies how Metro can build major projects would help get the next four planned light rail lines running by 2012 as called for in a 2003 referendum.
Without the change, said Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson, opening dates will be pushed back and costs will rise.
But many engineering firms are concerned that the change would send work to a few large companies and their favorite subcontractors, cutting out small Houston-area companies.
"We are concerned about what crumbs might be left over for the local community," said Chris Lindsay, executive director of the Houston Council of Engineering Companies.
The engineers' main objection is to something known as "design-build," one of the "alternative project delivery methods" Metro is considering for its North, Southeast, Harrisburg and Westpark lines.
Wilson, who used design-build as head of transit agencies in New Jersey and San Francisco, said that if it were combined with Federal Transit Administration grants and borrowing backed by the FTA's promise of future funding, the lines' cost could be cut 15 percent and completed four years sooner.
Wilson said cities and the state can use the methods, but the law that created Metro specifies that a project be designed first, then bid for construction, typically by a different company or companies.
Because the builder and engineers don't work together from the start, design changes made after construction begins cause delays and cost overruns, Wilson said. It also forces Metro to maintain a large staff to oversee participating companies.
Under design-build, a prime contractor hired through bids or negotiation oversees all phases from preliminary design through construction. The contractor guarantees a price, covers any overruns and deals with the subcontractors.
"You know the costs going in. No surprises," Wilson said.
Engineers say design-build could create conflicts of interest. A contractor, they say, could use shoddy materials in a design to hold down costs, or cut corners during construction to stay within budget.
Lindsay also said design-build could cost more because the contractor may charge a higher price up front to cover unforeseen changes. Wilson replies that design-build has worked well in a number of huge projects, including some he has overseen.
Metro needs legislative approval to use alternative methods on any of the four planned light rail lines and will need FTA approval to use it on any that use federal dollars. Metro has proposed paying for two lines itself if the FTA will fund the other two.
In Austin, Wilson testified for a bill sponsored by state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Austin, that would allow transit authorities use design-build, as well as another method called construction manager-at-risk. Lindsay said the engineers favor a bill by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, that would authorize the latter method.
Wilson said that method is inferior to design-build but better than the traditional way. Under construction manager-at-risk, Metro would hire a manager to coordinate a project from the start, so the agency wouldn't have to manage numerous separate contracts.
"It's a way of getting all the parties together while still providing checks and balances," Lindsay said. "There are separate contracts but a triangular relationship, so the owner has input from both (design and construction contractors).
Wilson said the drawback is that "cost develops as you go" instead of being locked in.
All three methods are subject to the same small-business participation goals and the same environmental safeguards, he said.
Map of rail extensions