Thursday, May 31, 2007

Toll Road confabulator URS lowers the bar for rail construction too

A bridge too low costs Cap Metro $260,000

Agency has to lower track, raise overpass to meet regulations.

May 31, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2007

Capital Metro, after determining that an overpass being built for commuter rail was not high enough, is spending about $260,000 to lower existing track and raise the bridge.

The changes will add 18 inches of clearance for freight cars.

The problem is not with Capital Metro's main track or the Union Pacific line that form a giant X at the out-of-the-way McNeil junction in Northwest Austin. Rather, in designing the $5.5 million overpass, Capital Metro and its consultant, URS Corp., did not leave sufficient space over a siding track used to transfer freight cars between the two railroads.

Even if the agency weren't elevating the overpass 10 inches and lowering the siding 8 inches, freight cars still would have had several feet of clearance, Capital Metro spokeswoman Andrea Lofye said. The existing design put the bridge at 20.5 feet. The agency's tallest vehicles (locomotives, in this case) are 17 feet high, she said.

The new configuration with the additional foot and a half of headroom, Lofye said, "allows us to meet required state and federal clearance requirements."

Crews had to depress about 200 feet of Capital Metro's main line as well, so that it would encounter the lowered spur track at the same elevation. Freight service on Capital Metro's line, which typically carries quarried rock from the Hill Country, was shut down for two days because of the work, Lofye said.

The main Union Pacific line, whose track is 24 feet lower than the bridge as it passes underneath, was not lowered.

Joe Arbona, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said company officials familiar with the project said they had not been contacted by Capital Metro about the glitch or the repair. Arbona said the railroad's double-stacked container cars are 21 feet high.

The transit agency, asked who was to blame for the original error and who would bear the cost of repair, Capital Metro or URS, said that would be determined later. The agency, created by voters in 1985, is primarily supported by a 1 percent sales tax levied in Austin and a few other surrounding communities it serves.

URS, based in San Francisco, is being paid $3.3 million to design the bridge, a commuter rail repair facility, sidings and track rehabilitation for the 32-mile commuter rail line.

"Capital Metro and URS have agreed to fully resolve this issue at the completion of the project," Lofye said. URS did not charge for the redesign, Lofye said.

Lofye said that $1.38 million had been set aside as a contingency reserve in the bridge's overall $6.9 million construction budget. The overpass project, they said, will be completed in time for commuter rail's late 2008 opening and for less than the budgeted amount.

Capital Metro board member Brewster McCracken, an Austin City Council member, said it is not uncommon for design mistakes to occur in construction projects and require changes on the fly. However, in this case, the error was tied into the very purpose of the bridge — to pass above other trains.

"That was a detail that was pretty important to get right," McCracken said.

He was also unhappy to hear about it from a reporter.

"We don't need to be notified of every problem" by agency staff, McCracken said. "But this strikes me as something that rises to the level that the board would have been typically told about."

Construction on the rail overpass began several months ago. The agency in October awarded the $5.5 million contract to Austin Bridge & Road to build the overpass.

Capital Metro, when it asked voters in 2004 for authority to operate commuter rail on a stretch of its rail line from Leander to downtown Austin, had not planned to build the bridge. But Union Pacific runs about two dozen freight trains on its intersecting track each day. Capital Metro eventually decided that having its high-speed commuter trains stuck at the intersection waiting for long freight trains to clear would be unacceptable.

Capital Metro's freight trains will continue to use the ground-level tracks at the intersection because the grade of the bridge will be too steep for ponderous freight haulers.

Capital Metro chief executive Fred Gilliam, in an open letter in Wednesday's American-Statesman that addressed higher-than-previously-disclosed commuter rail operating costs, wrote that even with the bridge added to the project, it will still come in $5 million under the $60 million construction figure advertised in 2004. The project was approved that fall with 62 percent of the vote.

To date, Austin Bridge & Road has installed 12 concrete bridge supports, eight east of the Union Pacific track, two between the Union Pacific track and the curving siding track that had to be lowered, and two west of the siding. Lofye said the bridge project is about 40 percent complete.; 445-3698

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