Understanding the Delayed Underground Utilities for Belt Line Road

Addison’s Staff Did Not Underestimate
The Belt Line Underground Utilities Project

Did Addison’s town staff underestimate the cost of the Belt Line Road Project as Mayor Todd Meier told Addison residents during the Mayor’s Coffee at Dunn Brothers on July 2? Or, were there other factors that could never have been known that changed the cost of the project?  Let’s look at the rest of the story.

It has long been a goal to improve the appearance of Belt Line Road, the gateway to our Town, including by undergrounding utilities and thereby eliminating the unsightly power and telephone poles.  All involved have always understood that this would be an ambitious, significant and expensive project, and that it would reach far beyond a single bond issue.

Back in 2000, the citizens of Addison considered this issue for the first time, and voted in favor of an $11 million bond package.  The amount of the bond package was an estimate only; there were no detailed engineering plans.  You might ask: why not do detailed engineering plans so that the amount of the bond package would be more exact?  The answer: because detailed engineering drawings are really expensive.  In the case of significant projects like Belt Line Road, such drawings could cost as much as a million dollars or more.  So, until voters approve a project, engineering plans are typically not prepared, and the amount of the bond issue is an estimate.

Additional Funds Committed in 2012 

As planning proceeded for undergrounding the utilities, some of the 2000 bond money was spent on landscaping and lighting improvements, including the new arc lights recently installed in the medians.  Then, in 2012, a new bond committee agreed with the concept of undergrounding utilities, and recommended that additional bonds be authorized.  In the 2012 bond election, the voters approved an additional $10 million for this project.  The amount proposed was again an estimate, this time based on conceptual plans and information derived from the recently completed Spring Valley project, albeit with the knowledge that Belt Line was a considerably more complicated project.  The Council again made the appropriate decision not to spend money on engineering drawings until voters approved the project.

After the additional bonds were authorized, Council approved the preparation of detailed engineering plans, including exploration and surveying of existing underground utilities.  This made clear what could not have been known before: there was not enough remaining room in the existing right of way to accomplish the project.  The proposed undergrounding would have to occur beneath medians and/or lanes, at a significantly higher cost, including the obtaining of right of way and licenses from landowners.

Project Scope Expands 

The proposed project also triggered provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  To proceed, the Town would need to include some required/necessary sidewalk widening, traffic signal improvements, upgrades to pedestrian crossings (including some at mid-block), as well as minor storm and water infrastructure improvements.  In addition, the current construction environment is highly competitive (DFW airport, NTTA, LBJ Freeway, to name a few ongoing projects), which places a premium on the availability of construction resources.  Simply stated, contractors are not as hungry and costs are higher.

In the meantime, the last overlay of Belt Line Road has outlived its anticipated useful life.  A new overlay is needed, including from Marsh all the way to the Tollway.  This work has been delayed while the whole issue of undergrounding has been percolating, as it would be better to avoid digging the road up a second time if the undergrounding is to occur.

None of this is news to anyone, including Mayor Meier.  Which makes his accusatory statement that the staff underestimated the project inappropriate and unfair.

 July 8th Discussion 

With that background, here is what is happening now.  First, the (old) Council voted on May 13, 2014 to authorize a $9 million contract with John Burns and Alliance Geotech Group for Phase I (Marsh to Midway), which was a little less than half of the total cost of Phase I ($17,788,802).  However, a little more than a month later, on June 24, 2014, the newly-seated Council changed its mind about proceeding with Phase I, and voted to rescind that contract, putting the project back on hold.

The project was back on the agenda yet again on July 8, 2014.  The discussion included consideration of the practical problems created with having bid the project twice, and having authorized the contract with John Burns on May 13, 2014, only to rescind it six weeks later, placing the contractor and his subs in limbo.

The Council again seemed to change its mind, now wanting to proceed with Phase I as had been proposed (and authorized) on May 13, 2014.  The issue of whether the contractor and his subs are still available at the price that was then offered is an open question.  But, the Council did not vote to proceed on July 8, as the item was not placed on the Agenda as an action item.  Instead, the Council proposed to have a Town Hall meeting about the project, ostensibly to obtain input on the issue.  As of this writing, the project remains unauthorized.

All of which is puzzling on many levels.  First, the Town’s residents have twice authorized bonds for this project, which certainly confirms a desire to proceed.  Second, the Council voted to proceed with the project on May 13th.  Third, the rescission of the contract six weeks later is puzzling and problematic.  The bids for Phase I have now expired, the contractor has expressed concern about the go-stop-go nature of the Town’s interactions with him, and the two bids and now a rescission have harmed Addison’s credibility in the construction community.  Whether qualified contractors will shy away from bidding on Addison projects in the future remains to be seen.

Tabling such an important decision in favor of having yet another Town Hall meeting evidences a lack of conviction by the majority of this Council.  The members of this Council were elected to make the hard decisions.  And making hard decisions takes political courage, which seems to be in short supply these days.

So, what’s our conclusion regarding Belt Line Road?  The project is far more complicated than anyone could have anticipated.  So, is Meier justified in telling citizens that the Town’s staff “underestimated” costs?  In a word: NO.