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No love lost for unfinished bridge over troubled tunnel

The Houston Chronicle
January 23, 1995

As their department's 75th anniversary was approaching, Texas transportation officials thought it would be fitting to celebrate that occasion along with the grand opening of the Fred Hartman Bridge. They soon realized they would have to make other plans. That was 1992. Now, more than two years later, the bridge that is supposed to span the Houston Ship Channel between La Porte and Baytown is still unfinished.

Begun in 1987, the structure has earned the sarcastic nickname ""A Bridge Too Short'' among residents and officials who have endured years of traffic jams and blocked businesses. The opening date that was to have been in 1992 has been pushed steadily back until projections now call for four lanes to open in September and the other four in October. But don't hold your breath, Baytonians advise.

"It is a very scary, frustrating experience," said Doris Sherron, spokeswoman for Baytown's Pilot Club. The businesswomen's association mounted a petition and letter-writing campaign protesting the handling of the $ 91.2 million project. Results of the club's effort will be given to Gov. George W. Bush later this month. Organizers say they have collected about 10,000 signatures and 1,400 letters.

The Texas Department of Transportation has received more jeers than cheers for what should have been a star in its crown -- a cable span bridge with more surface area than any in the world and the most expensive project ever undertaken with strictly state funding. With area residents growing more skeptical, Baytown Mayor Pete Alfaro traveled to Austin recently to talk with Bush about the years of problems the delayed construction has caused. Alfaro said Bush promised to do all he could to have the bridge completed promptly and asked the highway department's executive director, Bill Burnett, to review the project. Burnett is to be in Baytown Friday to meet with disgruntled officials and tour the site.

The bridge is designed to accommodate traffic on eight lanes suspended by cables from four diamond-shaped towers, each 40 stories tall and designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. The engineering marvel will replace the cramped, two-lane Baytown-La Porte Tunnel that has carried traffic under the channel for four decades. The tunnel will be dynamited once the bridge is in service.

This has been no tunnel of love for most area residents, especially those from Baytown who felt cut off when the October floods closed Interstate 10, their only other evacuation route. "One pregnant lady in labor got caught in the tunnel, unable to get through to her Houston hospital," said Sherron. "She had to bring in police to move autos and get her to a Baytown hospital. Cancer patients also couldn't get through. Some residents have even lost their jobs because it can take them two or three hours to commute to work." The bottlenecked tunnel is the scene of countless accidents, shutdowns, water leaks, lighting troubles and traffic snarls, state officials agree. "There are a couple of incidents, mostly accidents, that back traffic up every week," said Victor Tsai, spokesman for the state transportation department in Houston.

That, said Sherron, is why the bridge should have been finished years ago. "The Empire State Building was finished in a year and 45 days with no modern equipment," she said. "This bridge has already gone through four Texas governors. The bridge contractor has our community by the throat and is applying more and more pressure." State Rep. Robert E.Talton, R-Pasadena, also has asked Bush to investigate. "I'd like to know why it's taking so long. I'm not real happy with the contractor," he said. "After many delays, I was told it would be finished last year, then in March of 1995, then July 1995. Now they say September."

James D. Pitcock Jr., president of Williams Brothers Construction Co.of Houston, the bridge contractor, could not be reached for comment. Two years of the delay was blamed on troubles from importing steel from South Africa, said Mark Madera, the highway department's engineer overseeing the project. From the project's inception, the prospect of foreign steel has stirred controversy since 2,000 workers had lost their jobs when the U.S. Steel plant shut down in Baytown. Federal projects had a "buy American" clause for steel, but state projects did not until three years after the bridge work began.

Protests arose from minority groups upset that Williams Brothers would do business with a country then being sanctioned by the United States for its policy of racial segregation. Organized labor also picketed the company for using non-union workers. The contractor was able to skirt the import sanctions against South Africa because it was buying fabricated, not raw, steel, customs officials ruled.

Williams Brothers' troubles did not end there. Fabricators at the company's South African plant built girders too short, misplaced bolt holes, violated safety standards and ignored repeated warnings by state inspectors about the problems. The steel finally was shipped here in good form in 1990, said authorities, but there were more delays. Another year's delay resulted from "typical construction problems -- cranes breaking down and that sort of thing," Madera said. He said the company has been penalized $ 2.4 million so far and will owe another $ 1.2 million if the project is completed this fall. Stressing the unusual complexity of the project, Madera said, "This is not typical of what happens. Most projects are on time and maybe only 30 percent run over a little."

Critics say Williams Brothers is the exception to the rule. Alfaro said the contractor has had these troubles before. In the last 10 years, Williams Brothers completed 15 road and bridge projects on time but was late on another 31, highway department records show. That does not include the Hartman bridge and 23 other projects still under construction. Sherron said residents are tired of excuses. As traffic and construction have blocked access to her Galley Restaurant, Barbara Pearce has cut her work force from 35 to 15 and said she has lost half of her customers. "We're hanging on by our fingertips," she said. "My husband and I are 61 years old and have put everything we own into this business. If it keeps dragging on, we'll lose everything. I don't think the whole town can take much more, either. "

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