HOUSTON – The future use and price tag of a billion-dollar ship channel project remain unclear as a new group redesigns the bridge to address safety concerns raised more than two years ago.
The Houston Ship Channel Bridge was well underway when a pedestrian bridge in South Florida collapsed, killing six people in 2018. The designer for the Florida bridge also designed the Houston project but was removed after the deadly accident.
Since then, the project’s status has been slow to evolve after an audit conducted by COWI North America, a Canadian company, found potential design flaws in March 2019.
The project is funded completely by the money made when drivers pay to use toll roads. It was initially announced that it would cost $1 billion, but the Harris County Toll Road Association is now unsure of the cost.
Robert Trevino, the executive director of HCTRA, has been in the position since early 2021. Trevino said the project is still in the design phase, but there is no official total budget estimate or completion date to the project.
“We don’t have enough information to really provide any answers as to what the ultimate design will be,” Trevino said.
Although the total costs for the channel bridge are unclear, contracts show that the group that audited the project also gained nearly a $25 million contract to create the design in 2020. The award was made without a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), which allows other potential firms to submit bids.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo admits she’s not a fan of the approach but says COWI North America was awarded the contract because of the timing, knowledge of the project and other legal reasons.
“They know this project. They can take it on and they can move forward and that way we don’t have these massive delays, and we don’t have the risk of the entire project falling apart, and we don’t have the legal liability of this contractor,” said Hidalgo.
Local Government Code (262.04) allows for a county to make a purchase in a “case of public calamity if it necessary to make the purchase promptly to relieve the necessity of the citizens or to preserve the property of the county,” according to the office of one State Senator.
However, Nate Jensen, a University of Texas expert on government contracts and business, said the contract awards can create a conflict of interest.
“We have a lot of history of what goes wrong when you allow someone to audit and then provide a service based on that audit,” Jensen said.
Meanwhile, HCTRA is meeting on a weekly basis and expects final designs to be presented in the fall. Trevino said it is too early to tell what the design will be and the final costs.
Precinct Two Commissioner, Adrian Garcia wants the project to stay on track, but says “time is money.” Garcia has previously emphasized safety over “price tags.”
Hidalgo said the project’s billion-dollar price tag is already hefty.
“I would think that they are keeping it as something as reasonable,” Hidalgo said. “We’ll see what comes back.”
“To just say we hope that it comes in at a low price is a wild way to have public policy,” Jensen said.
Hidalgo inherited the project and says it has led to some “headaches.”
“I don’t love the path we’re on, but I think it’s less bad than the potential alternative,” Hidalgo said.