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How much was that freeway supposed to cost?

Rad Sallee visits an oldie but goodie: How much was the Katy Freeway expansion really supposed to cost? In other words, how much over budget should they be considered to be?

Barry Klein, a free-markets advocate and watchdog of the public purse, raised a good point in response to a Jan. 13 story about the Katy Freeway widening being completed in October.

In the story, project spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said the latest cost estimate was $2.8 billion, with $1.7 billion of that spent on construction. It also said the construction figure is about $300 million higher than initially projected. Klein recalled Chronicle reports of much lower early estimates.

The story was correct, according to Lewis, who explained that she was comparing the current estimates to those made when construction began, not the lower numbers cited during planning.

The expansion had been on the planning table for years when, in April 2001, U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, and then-County Judge Robert Eckels announced a plan to jump-start it by using county toll revenue to plug funding gaps.

But engineers still were in the preliminary design stage and actual construction would not begin until June 2003. When workers started digging up the earth and laying concrete, and property owners began to fight TxDOT in court, the numbers started to climb.

“At that time, our projected construction cost was $1.4 billion and for the total program it was $2.4 billion,” Lewis said. “The change has been to $1.7 construction and $2.8 billion for the total program.”

It’s interesting to track the changes. A Houston Chronicle story in July 2003 gave the total estimated cost as $1.71 billion, with $1.4 billion for construction, but by then TxDOT was revising its estimates rapidly. In June 2004, the estimated total had climbed to $2.2 billion, with $1.4 billion for construction.

Asked about that at the time, TxDOT contended that these were not real overruns because the early figures were only rough estimates, done without benefit of the knowledge to be gained later in final design and construction.

Lewis agreed and said the start-of-construction figures — not those from 2001 — are the fair ones to compare with current estimates.

But in March 2005, the state auditor, John Keel, took a different view. Total costs by then were estimated at $2.67 billion, with $1.65 billion for construction, and Keel was sharply critical of TxDOT.

His report cited $100 million that had been added to the initial estimates after the agency determined it would need to rebuild the Beltway 8 interchange.

Keel also said the cost of utility relocation had soared $156 million over original estimates, right-of-way costs had risen by $121 million and $234 million had been added for various design and administrative costs.

Lewis said last week that road builders are in something of a bind in the early stages of a project, when many of its unknowns cannot possibly be resolved. She said it is common practice to rely largely on preliminary data at that point. The alternative, she said, is to add a large and vague sum for contingencies, which invites accusations of padding the bill in advance.

It’s easy to sympathize. Taxpayers and reporters want to know what it’s going to cost, and supportive politicians want good news.

Here’s my blog post about that 2004 story, and here’s the July 2003 Chron story; I could have sworn I’d blogged about the 2003 story as well, but I can’t find it in my archives. Regardless, in the 2004 story TxDOT spokesperson Janelle Gbur did indeed note the distinction between the 2001 pre-construction estimate and the later ones, just as Raquelle Lewis does here; there was no mention of this in the 2003 story. The real question is whether TxDOT was making this distinction back in 2001, when it was releasing those now-discredited pre-construction numbers. Did they say at the time something like “Hey, y’all, we’re just taking a wild guess here, and we’re likely to be way low, because there’s all kinds of stuff that comes up once you get down to the nitty gritty of it. Please don’t take these numbers too seriously, because we’re going to throw them out and start fresh once we actually begin construction.” If they did, then I can accept their explanation now. If not, or if they just gave those numbers out with the assumption that “everyone would know” they’re given with a wink and crossed fingers, then this is baloney, and they should be held accountable for the full difference.

So with that in mind, I embarked on a Chronicle archive search, using “katy freeway estimate”, and “katy freeway billion” as my search terms, for the two year period from January 1, 2000, to January 1, 2002. I’ve included links and excerpts from the relevant results I found beneath the fold, all from 2001. To sum up, the answer is no, there was no indication from TxDOT or anyone else that $1 billion (sometimes cited as $1.2 billion) was anything other than The Number. I can’t completely pin this on TxDOT, because nowhere in any story did I see the number cited by a TxDOT spokesperson. It’s as if the figure bubbled up from the collective consciousness, and was simply quoted as what everyone seemed to agree was the actual dollar amount. In some cases, the number was simply part of the reported story, but in some cases it was specifically given by people involved in the project. The most damning example is this one, from an April 6, 2001 story about how the Harris County Toll Road Authority was going to help move this project along:

Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the state to ease traffic congestion on the west side, Harris County officials are pushing a plan to turn the Katy Freeway into a mega 24-lane roadway with a toll road down the middle.

The plan has been discussed for years, County Judge Robert Eckels said Thursday. But the county is now ready to gauge the Texas Department of Transportation’s interest in joining the Harris County Toll Road Authority to finish the entire project by 2006 – years before the state’s $1 billion Katy Freeway expansion would be complete.

The county’s plan is still a murky concept with a myriad of factors to address. But, on Tuesday, Commissioners Court gave toll road officials the green light to start talks with the state.

[…]

The plan formulated by the Toll Road Authority, which would extend about the same distance, calls for five general use lanes in each direction, two diamond lanes, four frontage lanes on each side and four toll lanes in the middle, two going each direction.

Toll Road Authority Executive Director Bernard Koudelka said the plan for now doesn’t include any barrier-separated HOV lanes.

“This is just a preliminary proposal,” he said. “With this, we’re just trying to open the doors to discussions. We’d be open to any suggestions. We haven’t finalized anything.”

There has been no financing plan worked out, no hard examination of what would be involved in acquiring land and no discussion of the roles each agency would take, Koudelka said.

In addition, officials will need to get federal approval to put toll roads on the Katy Freeway.

County officials have had positive preliminary meetings with the Transportation Department, Koudelka said. But, he added, a timetable for putting together a deal is unclear.

“We think we can work out agreements and do our studies and everybody can come to some understanding to finalize an agreement, probably by the end of the year,” he said.

Eckels said the cost of the project would probably still be around $1 billion.

If Robert Eckels is tossing that $1 billion figure around – and note he said “project”, and not “construction”, which to me signals a total-cost amount – then I think it’s safe to say that it was the accepted estimate for the project. At the very least, in none of the relevant stories, did I see any attempt by TxDOT to point out that this was sure to change once construction actually began. As such, I reject the subsequent attempts by TxDOT to claim that the starting figures were $1.4 billion for construction and $2.4 billion overall. If that’s what they’re saying now, they should have been saying it in 2001 as well.


http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3330624

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: FRI 08/31/2001
Section: A
Page: 37 Metfront
Edition: 3 STAR

State gives green light to speeding Katy work

By RAD SALLEE
Staff

The Texas Transportation Commission in Austin approved an accelerated funding plan Thursday for the Katy Freeway’s long-awaited expansion.

Texas Highway Commissioner John W. “Johnny” Johnson of Houston said the action, approved 3-0, will nearly double the number of traffic lanes in a 21-mile stretch of the congested roadway, from the West Loop to Fort Bend County, by 2009.

[…]

Construction is scheduled to start in 2003 after the design is finalized. As yet undecided is whether there will be a 24-lane freeway with a four-lane toll road down the middle or a 22-lane freeway with two high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Construction was previously expected to stretch over 10 years or longer because of the usual gaps in the traditional piecemeal funding process.

In interstate highway projects – the Katy is part of Interstate 10 – the federal government pays 80 percent of construction costs, the state 20 percent.

Under usual funding methods, the state’s 20 percent match must be paid as work progresses. The plan approved Thursday, made possible by changes in federal regulations last year, will let the state delay paying its share until all the federal dollars are spent.

The commission’s vote allots $492 million to the $1 billion project. The remainder was allocated earlier.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3320189

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: THU 07/12/2001
Section: ThisWeek
Page: 2
Edition: 2 STAR

Katy Freeway to get new look as part of expansion

By MIKE WARREN, Houston Chronicle correspondent

First there were designer jeans, followed by designer sunglasses and hats. Now Houston will have its first designer freeway.

The Texas Department of Transportation has designated the Katy Freeway a Green Ribbon freeway, meaning that special landscaping, patterns in retaining walls, colors and other aesthetic enhancements will be incorporated into the Interstate 10 expansion project set to begin in 2003.

All freeways in Houston are considered Green Ribbon corridors, but the Katy Freeway will be the first one with the aesthetic enhancements incorporated into a major construction project, said Dana Cote, the transportation department’s district landscape architect.

[…]

The overall cost of the improvements is about 1 percent of the estimated $1 billion cost for the freeway expansion, Cote said.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3314629

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: SUN 06/24/2001
Section: A
Page: 29 Metfront
Edition: 4 STAR

More toll roads expected in city / Westpark Tollway’s construction may mark pay roads’ resurgence

By RAD SALLEE
Staff

When elected officials and others who pushed for the Westpark Tollway celebrated the start of work Thursday by pushing ceremonial shovels into a sandbox, the event was significant for more than the traffic-weary residents on the city’s western reaches.

[…]

Roger Hord, executive director of the West Houston Association, told the crowd that using tolls to finance road construction will “propagate throughout the area” as traditional funding becomes harder to obtain.

A major selling point for the proposed Katy Freeway toll road is that toll revenues could speed completion of the overall widening by seven years and save $65 million on the $1.2 billion job.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3304345

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: MON 05/14/2001
Section: A
Page: 17 Metfront
Edition: 3 STAR

The man behind diamond lanes

By JOHN WILLIAMS
Staff

EDD HENDEE is having the time of his life.

His Taste of Texas restaurant makes big money. He hosts a radio talk show on KSEV (700 AM).

And for west Houstonians, he has become the diamond man. Diamond-lane man, that is.

He almost single-handedly pushed local transportation officials to adopt the diamond lanes for the proposed expansion of the Katy Freeway rather than the more restrictive HOV approach originally proposed.

When the $1 billion project is complete, the concrete barriers isolating general traffic from a reversible HOV lane will be gone. In their place will be at least two and possibly more lanes marked with diamonds, limited to vehicles with three or more passengers, but letting them exit at will.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3297580

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: WED 04/18/2001
Section: ThisWeek
Page: 01
Edition: 2 STAR

Faster way to widen freeway? / Plan for toll lanes aired at meeting

By TERRY KLIEWER
Staff

More than 250 Katy-area residents heard freshman U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-west Houston, and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels vow to almost double the capacity of congested Katy Freeway as soon as possible.

Culberson promised to “bird-dog” the planned $1.2 billion expansion project through federal funding channels, while Eckels pitched a novel tollway option that could cut project cost and completion time.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3294651

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: FRI 04/06/2001
Section: A
Page: 1
Edition: 3 STAR

LANES, LANES & AUTOMOBILES / Welcome to the wide, wide west? Maybe, it’s a plan that has been in the talking stage for many years, and there are many literal and figurative bridges to cross. But Harris County officials are now ready to test the waters on widening the overburdened Katy Freeway to 24 lanes.

By STEVE BREWER, RAD SALLEE, BILL DAWSON
Staff

Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the state to ease traffic congestion on the west side, Harris County officials are pushing a plan to turn the Katy Freeway into a mega 24-lane roadway with a toll road down the middle.

The plan has been discussed for years, County Judge Robert Eckels said Thursday. But the county is now ready to gauge the Texas Department of Transportation’s interest in joining the Harris County Toll Road Authority to finish the entire project by 2006 – years before the state’s $1 billion Katy Freeway expansion would be complete.

The county’s plan is still a murky concept with a myriad of factors to address. But, on Tuesday, Commissioners Court gave toll road officials the green light to start talks with the state.

[…]

The plan formulated by the Toll Road Authority, which would extend about the same distance, calls for five general use lanes in each direction, two diamond lanes, four frontage lanes on each side and four toll lanes in the middle, two going each direction.

Toll Road Authority Executive Director Bernard Koudelka said the plan for now doesn’t include any barrier-separated HOV lanes.

“This is just a preliminary proposal,” he said. “With this, we’re just trying to open the doors to discussions. We’d be open to any suggestions. We haven’t finalized anything.”

There has been no financing plan worked out, no hard examination of what would be involved in acquiring land and no discussion of the roles each agency would take, Koudelka said.

In addition, officials will need to get federal approval to put toll roads on the Katy Freeway.

County officials have had positive preliminary meetings with the Transportation Department, Koudelka said. But, he added, a timetable for putting together a deal is unclear.

“We think we can work out agreements and do our studies and everybody can come to some understanding to finalize an agreement, probably by the end of the year,” he said.

Eckels said the cost of the project would probably still be around $1 billion.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3296768

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: SAT 04/14/2001
Section: A
Page: 1
Edition: 3 STAR

Wide approval greets I-10 plan

By RAD SALLEE, TERRY KLIEWER
Staff

To the surprise of few, a plan to almost double the congested Katy Freeway and to speed funding for the project with a toll road down the middle scored a hit at two town hall meetings this week.

[…]

Both the state and the toll road plans for widening the freeway call for increasing its “footprint” from 275 feet to 475 feet in a 38-mile stretch from the West Loop to the Brazos River.

But the toll road plan offers an additional two traffic lanes, a completion date up to seven years sooner than the Transportation Department plan, and would shave an estimated $65 million off the $1 billion project.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2001_3288871

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: WED 03/14/2001
Section: ThisWeek
Page: 8
Edition: 2 STAR

Group seeks rapid I-10 expansion / New clean-air plan may threaten reconstruction of Katy Freeway

By KIM CANON
Staff

A west Houston delegation has appealed to the state transportation commission to speed up the Interstate 10 reconstruction project, calling it “the most congested, dangerous freeway in Texas.”

The group, led by West Houston Association President and Chief Executive Officer Roger Hord, presented two requests to the commission in Austin last month.

First, the association asked that the entire I-10 project – 21 miles from Loop 610 to Fort Bend County – be considered priority-one status. Under such status the state would adopt an aggressive schedule that would have the project completed by 2010.

“By not adopting the project’s aggressive schedule, we would be proposing the project to a construction schedule that would needlessly cause costs to rise $65 million over a four-year period,” Hord said.

Hord said the delay would also expose I-10 travelers to $85 million in travel delay costs.

Right now, only two sections of the I-10 project have been given priority-one status by the commission: the Texas 6 to Mason Road segment and the Loop 610/I-10 interchange segment.

The delegation also requested that the commission come up with about half of the $1.2 billion required to fund the project.

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