More than six years ago, Metro began mapping plans to help Missouri City-area motorists in that fast-growing southwest section of the Houston region. Extending Independence Boulevard to Murphy Road would link up the subdivisions of Brightwater and Hunter's Glen. In the process, it would relieve congestion, provide residents with new access to parkland and enable them to avoid flood-prone roads.
In short, another patch in the area's quilt of roadways was to be routinely sewn into place.
In 1998 the $4 million project moved off the drawing boards and toward reality. Metro awarded a $2.2 million contract to low bidder Grady Management Company to build a key half-mile of the nearly five-mile roadway extension.
Drivers were expected to be streaming along Independence Boulevard by now. But they aren't.
Instead, area residents have only a barricaded road to nowhere -- a useless stretch of pavement and a pair of bridges bisecting pastures. Equipment has been abandoned for months, and costs to taxpayers are likely to climb ever higher on the stalled project.
And among the affected residents in the area is the man at the center of the mess, contractor Ulysses Grady.
The owner of Grady Management Inc. has degrees from the prestigious Georgia Tech engineering school. He talks of experience such as managing construction at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport before he arrived in Houston. Grady says he has a solid record with Metro over many years.
And he made his biggest stride in August 1998, with the low bid on the Independence Boulevard project. He beat out two firms, Bean Construction Company and Texas Sterling Construction Inc., in the process.
His euphoria did not last long. Grady says he discovered five natural gas pipelines crossing the proposed roadway, increasing costs and hampering project deadlines because Metro had made no provisions for removing the pipe casing. "From there it went downhill."
Robert Plessala, his attorney, said in legal documents that Grady was supposed to leave a wooden bridge in place until the new bridges were put in, but Plessala said the old structure was in the way of one of the new spans, so that was impossible.
A 75-day delay was caused by seeping sewage from lines that had to be handled by county and state workers. Inspectors said he didn't properly lay the asphalt. There were repeated problems with the S-shaped bridge roadway design, and he complained of inadequate right-of-way to reroute underground conduits.
Worst of all, the alignment on the linkup to other contractors' portions of the road was off by nearly a foot.
The original 270-day project bogged down into a blizzard of accusations and counteraccusations -- from Grady, other contractors, inspectors, Metro and Missouri City. Grady argued that he was entitled to an extension of nearly a year for all the unforeseeable problems.
In April 2000 Metro handed him a letter firing him from the project. That left his performance bonding company, Commercial Indemnity Insurance Co., holding the ball -- and the bill. Seven months later Commercial, which said it spent $152,700 and received only $56,600 from Metro, got canned as well.
"The project was a snake pit from the beginning," Grady fumes. In addition to the litany of complaints he voices about the contract problems, months after his firing Grady added another one: racism.
He's African-American. He said in a formal four-page discrimination complaint to Metro that an inspector used racial slurs.
While penalties and actions were taken against his company, similar conduct and work problems were tolerated from white contractors, he alleged.
In one incident, another inspector "garnished [sic] a knife in a threatening manner." Grady wrote that no disciplinary action was taken by Metro, other than sending a letter to the inspector advising him "not to display his knife on the project."
Representatives of the inspection firm, Cobb, Fendley & Associates, refused to comment. One road-building veteran chuckled at the late complaint letter and the other reasons cited by Grady for the problems.
"He's just trying to cover up his own incompetence," the construction executive says. "He may be playing the race card now, but Grady just got in over his head on this project. He didn't know what he was doing, and that quickly became obvious."
Less obvious is how Metro managed to turn a routine road-building project into a costly quagmire of conflicting claims. Citing pending litigation, the agency refused to allow the Houston Press access to anything more than the boilerplate contract agreement issued to Grady.
An absence of documents makes it difficult to explore Grady's claims that he was sabotaged by design flaws or inspectors.
Metro vice president Julie Gilbert does say that there is no record of Grady working in the past for the agency, although she notes that he may have been hired by Metro contractors or subcontractors on its projects.
Metro has finally returned to the task of building the road, advertising for bids to complete the project. Nine companies responded, with bids between $650,000 and $2.2 million. Metro could go after Grady and the bonding company for these costs.
A winner is expected to be announced this month, although it may take years for a victor to emerge on various legal fronts. Grady is no novice in court frays -- records show Audubon Indemnity Co. got a settlement in a 1996 suit against his company and J.D. Abrams Inc. in federal court.
Universal Surety of America sued his company last year, accusing it of failing to post collateral on a bond. Another pending suit, by Cemex USA Construction Materials, is for unpaid debts.
Last month Grady and his Commercial Indemnity bonders went on the offensive, filing a suit in Fort Bend County against Metro and Missouri City for breach of contract. It alleges that independent inspectors believe his work was competent and within industry standards, and that the delays were the fault of others.
As for Metro's view of the quality, it plans to pay new contractors to go in and rip out portions of Grady's previous work, saying it is clearly inadequate. His suit calls that plan "nothing more than economic waste," saying the project is only 10 percent unfinished. According to the suit, he can have it completed in perhaps 45 days.
Barring any unforeseen delays, of course.
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