Highway Projects are a Bargain as Bids Come in Low

If you have a toll road or a highway interchange on your Christmas shopping list, you're in luck.

The price to build roads, after runaway inflation in the industry that added about 50 percent to the cost of construction, has settled back to earth. For a government that happens to have a few tens of millions of greenbacks sitting around, this is a perfect time to do road work.

Last week, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority was tickled to announce that it has a $52 million bid in hand to build four flyover bridges where U.S. 183 will join the U.S. 290 East tollway. This on a job that just about a year ago had a $120 million cost estimate.

At the same time, the mobility authority announced that it had received a low bid of $75 million on a project to extend the 183-A toll road about seven miles. The agency's estimate had been $113.4 million .

The money for the U.S. 290 project, by the way, came from the federal stimulus plan and was allocated by the Texas Department of Transportation, and the project had been budgeted for $90 million . The leftover money - perhaps $20 million after other costs are added in - will be available for other projects. Those might not be in Central Texas, however.

The savings on 183-A mean that the authority will have to borrow less on the bond market to build it. Does that mean toll rates announced last month might be lower when the extended road opens in 2012 ? Well, no, agency spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said. The extra tollway profits will be available to plow into other projects, he said.

This comes on the heels of TxDOT getting a $24.4 million bid for four flyovers at Interstate 35 and Ben White Boulevard, a project that had been estimated to cost $40 million . Turns out that the low bidder had made a mistake and withdrew, so the project will have to be rebid in a couple of months. But the second lowest bidder was about $27 million, so TxDOT is still likely to get a good deal.

And the City of Austin, partnering with TxDOT, expects to pay $13 million for two flyovers at Ben White and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), rather than the $20 million estimate from a few months ago.

"It's a fabulous time to be (bidding) work," said Tom Johnson , executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Texas. Basically, he said, with TxDOT putting out fewer projects, there are more contractors - many more - than there is work. And because of the worldwide recession, steel and cement and rail cars for transportation are readily available, and thus, much cheaper, he said.

So, what the heck, go ahead. Get Dad that I-35 off-ramp he's been asking for.

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