Seven months after city and civic leaders heralded the start of the long-anticipated Hemphill-Lamar street connector on the south end of downtown, the City Council today will be asked to consider putting the project on hold to address the issue of millions of dollars in soaring costs.
Last projected to cost $26.6 million, the city is now looking at a $44.9 million price tag, an $18.3 million increase, according to a city report being released today. Of that increase, construction cost hikes alone total $13 million, in part due to an improved economy. As a result, the project has come to a standstill.
The big question is, is this worth $45 million. We have nothing to compare it to.
Jay Chapa, Fort Worth assistant city manager
The connector is a planned four-lane street and a pedestrian tunnel that includes sidewalks and bike lanes connecting Lamar Street at the south end of downtown Fort Worth to Hemphill Street on the near south side, under the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Interstate 30.
On the south side, the street would connect with Hemphill at Vickery Boulevard, property the city bought in 2010, according to deed records.
Now, the city must decide whether the project is worth the added money and, if so, how they’re going to pay to complete it.
Or, they could decide to pull the plug on the project that’s been envisioned for decades, long before the interstate was moved.
The connector project wasn’t formally proposed until 2002 when the highway portion over Lancaster Avenue was moved to the south. Voters approved paying for the connector in the 2004 bond program. And when the Texas Department of Transportation moved the highway, the agency built a bridge under the interstate in anticipation of the connector project.
“The big question is, is this worth $45 million,” said Jay Chapa, assistant city manager. “We have nothing to compare it to.”
Looking at options
Chapa said he plans to recommend that the city hire a consulting engineer to look at options, including improving the much older underpasses at Jennings Avenue and Main Street to make them accessible for pedestrians and bicycle riders.
Traffic counts at those underpasses could influence a decision. Today, only about 11,250 cars a day use the Jennings underpass, a summer study shows. Projections estimate that about 19,600 cars a day would use the connector, with some of those being motorists who use the Jennings underpass a block away.
Chapa said updated traffic estimates are needed that would incorporate current and planned nearby residential and commercial developments.
Pedestrians can also access the near south side by a walkway at Trinity Railway Express station in the T&P Lofts building. The building is between the Jennings and Main underpasses, offering three access points within a quarter-mile.
Hemphill-Lamar street connector has been at a standstill since an April ground-breaking ceremony.
In addition to the funding from the 2004 bond program, the Hemphill-Lamar connector received $8.7 million dollars out of the millions of dollars in certificates of obligations the city sold in 2013 to bring the project budget up to $26.6 million. The last budget amount was based on 2012 estimates.
In 2013, the city hired a construction manager at risk for the project who earlier this year discovered issues, including some environmental concerns, about the railroad phase of the project. When it started bidding that phase, they saw costs skyrocketing. It was at the end of the summer that the construction consultant gave the city the new $44.9 million price tag, Chapa said.
Under a new policy taking effect Oct. 1, the City Council is now making spending decisions on bond program project overruns that were previously done at the staff level.
Of the $26.6 million set aside for the project, $11.1 million has been spent on such things as engineering, design, land acquisition, utility work and a storm water drain. The storm water drain is completed, but that phase of the project, which began last fall, ended up costing about $2 million more to complete because there was more work involved in moving utili ties than first thought, Chapa said.
Various factors played into the project’s delay, including the changes made to improve congestion on the Union Pacific Railroad intersection southeast of downtown at Tower 55. The connector project includes a new rail bridge to support four existing UPR tracks, but the railroad didn’t want to be involved in two projects at once, the city said, and denied the city access to its property.
While that bridge is being built, railroad tracks would need to be moved and put back in place when the bridge was completed.
Some delay also occurred while the city was involved in a condemnation lawsuit with the owner of the T&P Warehouse regarding two temporary easements. Those easements were released earlier this year.
Coupled with the delays is an improved economy, which have sent construction costs skyrocketing, Chapa said.
Just in 2014, industry reports shows a 5.5 percent increase in the national average in construction cost, with labor costs making up the bulk of that.
The Hemphill-Lamar project was slated to be completed in the summer of 2017.