MoPac? More Like SlowPac! Persistent Delays Plague Improvement Project

Jun 28, 2017

Bobak Tehrany and I meet in the parking garage at the Chase Building downtown. He works with the engineering consulting company Stantec, whose clients include the Texas Department of Transportation. It’s been a long day, and he’s ready to make the commute home.

“You know, it’s funny because you hear people calling it SlowPac all the time,” he says.

In a perfect world, Highway Loop 1, or MoPac, would be a straight shot between Tehrany’s home and office. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

“I [would] avoid MoPac, regardless of whether it was under construction or not,” Tehrany says. “I’ve been living here for nine years, so I’ve always found other routes to take, as opposed to our major highways during the peak hours, if I can.”

Tehrany’s not alone; countless other Austin residents do the same. MoPac gets really congested, and the new construction efforts to relieve that congestion have made it only worse.

Credit CTRMA via YouTube

The so-called MoPac Improvement Project was supposed to be completed more than two years ago. Back in 2013, the city started looking at adding an express toll lane from Parmer to Cesar Chavez on North MoPac. The intention was to ensure a fast, reliable route for buses and other public transit, while eliminating standstill for drivers willing to pay a toll.

Colorado-based CH2M Hill won the bid with a contract of $136 million and the project started. It was scheduled to be complete by September 2015.

Everything seemed to be going great … until it wasn’t.

“There are disagreements between the contractor and ourselves over the causes of the delay, and whether or not they are reasonable causes,” says Steve Pustelnyk, director of community relations at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which hired CH2M. “There have been many given over the course of the project.”

Pustelnyk says CH2M attributed delays to everything from a struggle to find workers to issues breaking through hard rock. Some argue the company’s low-cost design just wasn’t thought out properly. According to the Mobility Authority, the wait has cost it millions of dollars in fines.

“There have been liquidated damages withheld to the tune of about $20 million for the delays that have been experienced,” Pustelnyk says.

CH2M, and its subcontractor Lane Construction, denied KUT’s request for comment.

As we pull up to his house, Tehrany says he doesn’t think a toll lane will solve the congestion, but that the MoPac project is still worthwhile. The toll lane will provide more options, and a reliably faster route for public transit is a great benefit. The way he sees it, congestion is never going away and neither should the attempts to improve it.

“We have absolutely no choice. It has to happen,” he says. “We’re not going to build a wall around this city and stop people from coming in to one of the greatest cities in the world … home to one of the largest universities [and] the capital of the second largest state in the United States. I mean, the fact that people think that’s going to stop blows my mind away.”

The Mobility Authority says it's optimistic MoPac will be finished by September.