March 31, 2005
News flash: Katy Freeway expansion costs rise again

Remember the good old days when the Katy Freeway expansion project cost a mere $2.2 billion? How young and foolish we all were, back before stories like this started appearing.

The cost of expanding the Katy Freeway has gone up almost another $300 million, according to a state audit that faults the Texas Department of Transportation for failing to "take the necessary and appropriate steps to estimate total project costs."

Auditor John Keel's report notes TxDOT's latest cost estimate is $2.67 billion, up 78 percent from the October 2001 estimate of $1.5 billion. The last estimate released by TxDOT was $2.4 billion.

"TxDOT faces a significant risk that costs will continue to rise above the $2.67 billion March 2005 estimate for total projects costs." Keel warns in his Tuesday report to Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, which was publicly released Wednesday. "The Legislature may wish to require TxDOT to design a standard model so that it could estimate project costs more accurately."

Do I hear three billion? Three billion, anyone?

And since I started making that silly calculation last time, I'll update it to note that at a total cost of $2.67 billion, this project is costing $2107 per inch.

Keel criticizes TxDOT for basing the 2001 Katy expansion estimate on preliminary engineering work and failing to update the projection as further design work revealed substantially higher costs. He cites about $100 million added after the department determined it would need to rebuild the Beltway 8 interchange to accommodate the four High Occupancy Toll lanes being built in the center of the freeway.

According to the report, the highway department did not originally include $56 million for moving Houston water and sewer lines, failed to include the project's administrative costs of more than $100 million, didn't adjust costs for inflation or include contingencies to cover rising materials prices.

The auditor identifies another $121 million in unanticipated cost increases for land needed to widen the freeway, and suggests transportation officials raced to get the bulldozers out there before having the necessary right of way.

"TxDOT did not follow its standard practice of purchasing the majority of right of way before letting contracts," the report states. "TxDOT made a decision to forgo acquiring right of way in advance in order to manage the project on an accelerated construction schedule."


Keel issued several recommendations to the Legislature for mandating better cost controls at the highway department on future projects. He also cited changes needed in expediting the state's ability to take property needed for these major infrastructure upgrades.

His suggestions include expanding jurisdiction for right of way condemnations in Harris County to include state district courts in addition to county courts. Legal delays mean only 57 percent of needed parcels along I-10 have been acquired despite nearly all construction contracts' having been let.

[TxDOT Commissioner Ric] Williamson blames landowners for bogging down the process in a bid to get more money.

Now, I know that eminent domain is a necessary tool of government. I don't know much about the particulars here, but I could be persuaded that a little streamlining of the system is in order. It should be possible to give everyone a fair shake while still keeping the system moving.

That said, I think Ric Williamson has a hell of a nerve blaming displaced property owners for his problems. This situation was entirely foreseeable. It's a big part of the reason why critics like the Katy Corridor Coalition agitated to reduce the footprint of the Katy renovation - less property to take means lower costs, less time spent in court, and a better outcome for everyone. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I thought respect for private property was supposed to be a conservative principle. At least now we know where it stands when put in conflict with the roadbuilding industry and its generous campaign contributions.

UPDATE: Greg chips in his two cents.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 31, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

"respect for private property was supposed to be a conservative principle" I thought so too. Unless it happens to be your property in the way of "progress" then your a greedy landowner bogging down the boondoggle.

Hey and by the way, I thought these Republicans were all business oriented and knew how to run a freaking project on time and on budget? Where are you vaunted busniss skills now?

Posted by: chris on March 31, 2005 10:28 AM