Saturday, April 06, 2002

Trans-Texas Corridor starts construction

Texas 130 sets off on road to construction

Naming of contract winner Monday will pave way for I-35 bypass

April 6, 2002

Kelly Daniel
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

In about nine months' time, ground could be churning on Texas 130, the proposed toll road that's about to see the largest highway construction contract awarded in state history.

The contract winner will be announced Monday and formally approved later this month, sealing more than 16 years of work on the proposed 90-mile bypass east of Interstate 35.

Construction should start by early 2003, Texas Turnpike Director Phil Russell said Friday. The state had previously said work could begin this fall, but that was based on awarding the contract in March.

Texas 130 would run from Georgetown to Seguin as now envisioned, but could one day stretch from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to south of San Antonio under proposals from Gov. Rick Perry.

Work will begin on the Williamson and Travis County portions first, from just north of Georgetown to just south of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The state is still trying to find money to pay for a third section, in Caldwell and Guadalupe counties, and has long planned that portion as the last piece.

Traffic estimates are not as high on the Guadalupe and Caldwell portions, which will hurt Texas 130's chances for money from Wall Street when the state goes to sell bonds in late summer. And neither county says it can afford its portion for the land, about $20 million.

"It didn't seem reasonable to delay the entire project while we worked out that third piece," Russell said. It is still included in the project, however. "We still have the ability within this (contract) to construct it."

Three collections of engineering, contracting, design and architectural firms are vying for the Texas 130 contract, estimated at $1.5 billion. Texas 130 is the centerpiece of a $3.3 billion package of toll roads planned in Central Texas, which include extensions of U.S. 183 and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Texas 45 North.

The state now plans to concentrate on Texas 130 and on the Texas 45 North and MoPac projects, nicknamed "the T" for the shape they form in connecting southern Williamson County and northern Travis County.

The MoPac and Texas 45 North pieces also have the highest traffic and potential toll revenue estimates, which would help generate more money for Texas 130 bonds.

The U.S. 183 toll road would be left up to Central Texas leaders, who would form their own body, a regional mobility authority, for the project. State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, has led local efforts to form such a group.

"I think it's highly likely that it will become a regional mobility authority project," Russell, the turnpike director, said. "It'd be a great project for them to get started on. It's a needed project. It's got a lot of local appeal. And it's a right-sized project -- a couple hundred million dollars."

But the first mobility authorities probably wouldn't form until late 2003, waiting for the Texas Legislature to change some legal wording that now precludes the groups from issuing bonds to pay for roads. The state isn't likely to do much work on the U.S. 183 extension in the meantime, with Russell saying, "We'll obviously have our hands full, with 130 and the T."

The timing doesn't sit well with some Williamson County leaders, who are expressing increasing frustration with how the U.S. 183 extension is handled. The U.S. 183 piece would help Cedar Park, Leander and western Williamson County traffic.

"If it'll get the road built, dadgummit, we'll support it," said Leander Mayor Larry Barnett, referring to the regional mobility authority idea. "I think (Texas) 130 and 45 North have been the squeaky wheels. Well, we are going to start making some noise up here."

Central Texas leaders could begin buying the land needed for the U.S. 183 extension while the logistics of the new toll road body are ironed out, Russell said.

Whichever consortium wins the Texas 130 contract could begin buying land for the road this summer. That work and initial design work will take about six months; afterward, the state expects construction to begin.

Texas 130 would be ready about seven years after construction starts.

Texas 130 is also the starting point for Perry's $175 billion plan to create 4,000 miles of transportation corridors across Texas, incorporating toll roads, high-speed freight and passenger rail and pipelines for oil, gas, water and other utilities.

The Central Texas toll road will proceed without a rail or pipeline part while the state Transportation Department works to meet a summer deadline to report back to Perry with a plan for the corridors.

Texas 130 construction estimates were coming in higher than expected, and Texas transportation commissioners warned Central Texas politicians last week that they'll be asking for more local money. The commission hasn't voted yet on accepting a $150 million offer from Austin and Travis and Williamson counties, but that's expected to happen at its April 25 meeting.

Texas 130 is about to break new ground with the type of contract being announced Monday.

For the first time, the state will use an agreement called design-build, by which architects and engineers are still designing part of a road while contractors are building the first pieces. That scenario speeds up overall construction time, which the state expects will save it money.

The announcement itself will be a bit unusual. Texas Turnpike Authority officials will release a ranking of the three consortiums but will try to hold off releasing details of each group's proposal until after the contract is officially awarded April 25.

But the bottom line is simple: Texas 130 is getting a green light to start a new era in how the state handles complex construction projects, and a new era in Central Texas transportation.

"I think we all need to buckle up our seat belts," Russell said. "It's going to be an interesting ride."; 445-3618

Consortiums vying for the Texas 130 contract

* Lone Star Infrastructure Includes: Fluor Daniel, Jones Brothers Inc./Deavers Construction, Balfour Beatty Construction Inc., DMJM & Harris, S&B Infrastructure, Southwest Strategies Group Inc., SWG&M, Hicks & Co., TBE Group Inc., VMS Inc., Raba-Kistner, Austin Road & Bridge, T.J. Lambrecht Construction, Bridgefarmer & Associates Inc.

* Texas Corridor Constructors Includes: Zachry Construction Corp., Infrastructure Corp. of America, HNTB, Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade Douglas Inc., Earth Tech Inc., Hicks & Co., Dannenbaum Engineering Corp., Fugro South Inc., Lockwood Andrews Newnam Inc., TateAustin, Vickery & Associates Inc., George Veni, Gilbert Texas Construction LP, Atser LP, Koch Materials Co., Jose I. Guerra Inc., Pape-Dawson Engineers, Hagler Bailly Services Inc., Surveying and Mapping Inc., CH2M Hill, Paragon Project Resources, Aguirre Associates Inc., Crespo, Pb Consult Inc.

* Four Rivers Developers Includes: Granite Construction Co., J.D. Abrams Inc., Ames Construction Inc., Williams Brothers Construction, Sverdup Civil Inc., Carter & Burgess Inc., Turner Collie & Braden Inc., Chiang, Patel & Yerby Inc., Kleinfelder/Tetco Inc., Rodriguez Engineering Laboratories, Structural Engineering Associates, The Pinnacle Group, Halliburton KBR (Brown & Root), Crossland Acquisition Inc., Cobb Fendley & Associates, Hicks & Co., Blanton & Associates, Group Solutions, DRM, Surveying and Mapping Inc., TransTec Consultants, Roy Jorgensen Associates Inc.

© 2002 Austin American-Statesman:


Williamson county quietly drops Peters from his job as investigation opens.

State to assist inquiry of political consultant

Williamson officials hope to avoid potential for conflict of interest in billing case

April 6, 2002

Tony Plohetski,
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

The Texas attorney general's office agreed Friday to assist Williamson County officials in investigating a political consultant who billed the county thousands of dollars for meetings that allegedly never happened.

District Attorney John Bradley, who requested the agency's involvement, said he wanted to avoid suggestions that the consultant, Amos "Pete" Peters III of Austin, would receive preferential treatment because of his ties to county officials.

Peters has handled campaign work for almost every major office holder in the county, including Bradley, the county commissioners and Sheriff John Maspero.

"I believe the public would best be served by having a special prosecutor present a case to the grand jury," Bradley said in statement Friday.

Bradley has said he didn't use Peters' company during his recent primary campaign and has distanced himself from Peters since the investigation started. In 1996, he paid Peters' public relations firm, the Communicators, $500 for political work during his unsuccessful run for the state's criminal court of appeals.

Peters declined to comment on the attorney general's involvement and referred calls to his lawyer, Wayne Meissner of Austin.

Meissner said that he and his client have no qualms about the agency becoming involved in the case.

"We certainly welcome the involvement of anyone who is going to help resolve the matter as soon as possible," Meissner said.

"We continue to believe that Mr. Peters was faithful to his contract, and we hope that we can reach an appropriate conclusion real soon," he added.

Peters, 54, and his public relations firm were hired in January 2001 to promote a $350 million road bond project that was approved by Williamson County voters in November 2000.

He became the target of an investigation by the sheriff's department in February after the Austin American-Statesman reported in January that he billed the county more than $600 for three meetings with the newspaper's editor, Rich Oppel, who said the meetings never took place.

A later Statesman review of his invoices showed that Peters billed the county more than $2,400 for meetings with media representatives who said they didn't happen. Peters was paid at least another $2,300 for meetings that other people said likely didn't happen, according to interviews, reports and documents.

The county quietly dropped Peters from his job when the investigation opened.

Overall, the county paid Peters about $41,000 for his work on the road bond project last year. In addition to what Peters earned, his company was paid about $9,000 for work performed by an employee and about $11,000 in reimbursements for expenses.

The majority of the money was paid for work that has not been disputed.

Peters has attributed many of the questions surrounding his billing practices to sloppy
record-keeping, saying he frequently prepared information for reporters and then described the work as a meeting.

Maspero said that so far his department's investigation has centered on Peters' billings.

However, he said Friday that the scope has been extended to all of Peters' work for the county and that the investigation will likely continue for at least the next six months.

Attorney General spokesman Mike Viesca said Peters' case was handed over Friday to the agency's Prosecutor Assistance Division, which he said routinely helps with local investigations for a variety of reasons.

Viesca said the division is determining which prosecutor in the division would work the case, but he would not discuss further possible action.

Bradley's decision to seek outside help came as little surprise to Maspero and County Judge John Doerfler.

"I totally concur with his observation and what he has done," Maspero said.

Doerfler agreed.

"It was a good move on his part," he said. "It doesn't surprise me because I think if John would have handled the case, he'd have been accused of favoritism."

However, County Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein said he was surprised by the move because of Bradley's earlier statements that he was comfortable in his role.

But, Heiligenstein added, "I would assume that he's doing the best for all the parties involved."

© 2002 Austin American-Statesman: