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Penalties pave work on freeway;
Delays on U.S.59 cost $ 11,000 a day

Houston Chronicle
July 1, 1995

If you suspected the expansion of the Eastex Freeway was moving a little slowly, you were correct. Construction companies along parts of U.S. 59 now are absorbing nearly $ 11,000 in late fees per working day, according to engineers at the Texas Department of Transportation. Though the companies recently have quickened their pace, the penalties will continue to pile up until the work is complete, perhaps as late as 1997, the engineers said.

"It's just the slowness in their approach to the work. The progress is not as good as it should be for the time spent," said Gary Lemley, transit project manager for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which also is counting on the companies for its high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Most of the late sections are north of Loop 610 and south of Greens Bayou, the first Eastex widening projects to begin in 1991 and 1992. Even with unexpected delays to clear underground storage tanks -- for which the companies were not penalized -- the sections were supposed to be complete earlier this year.

Four segments awarded to Williams Brothers Construction now are being fined a total of $8,800 per day for an apparent total of more than $ 1 million in penalties over the past several months, said Ruben Martinez, a transportation department area engineer. Traylor Brothers Inc., which also has a section of the work, is 75 working days into a $2,100-per-day fine, Martinez said.

Though the fines sound steep, the total amount of the four Williams Brothers contracts is $120 million. Even if the company does not finish the sections until 1997 as state officials estimate, the projected fine would not represent an overwhelming percentage of its fee. For that reason, all of the newer Eastex contracts to the north and south will contain stiffer fines of $ 10,000 per day rather than a current formula that averages between $ 1,700 and $ 2,500 per day for each segment, Martinez said.

Officials of Williams Brothers could not be reached for comment Friday. Martinez said he felt the completion dates in the contracts were reasonable. "Williams Brothers is a good contractor. They do excellent work. Maybe they bit off more than they can chew," he said.

Williams Brothers is also the contractor that was supposed to have finished the $ 92 million Fred Hartman Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel in 1992, with completion now expected by September. While the company has been assessed more than $ 4,200 per work day in late fees for more than two years, it has countered by asking the state for an additional $ 58 million, alleging poor planning by state officials, said Jon Hott, a transportation department assistant project engineer.

U.S. 59 has more than $330 million in work under way, with an additional $340 million planned. A section from South Shepherd to Spur 527/Smith Street, leading into downtown Houston, is planned to be widened from 10 lanes to 12 with an elevated HOV lane that is now being opposed by some residents. A section from Clay Street to Franklin Street downtown will be re-decked, keeping six lanes but with a planned loss of one entrance and one exit ramp, which also is stirring local concern. From Franklin north to Beltway 8, the freeway is being widened to 10 lanes with an HOV lane, and from Beltway 8 to Northpark the road will be eight lanes, with an HOV lane to the Montgomery County Line. Under current plans, the freeway eventually will be expanded to six lanes north to the proposed Grand Parkway. In the meantime, Martinez said, state officials believe traffic is moving smoothly through construction areas unless there is an accident.

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