Who's in Charge Here?
To city engineer Parke Reid, the choice was obvious: A major thoroughfare should be designed to minimize the possibility of high water in the streets, especially in a flood-prone city like Houston. And the existing "dual slope" standard the city had been using for thoroughfare construction, which calls for a gentle incline on the inside lane with a slightly steeper slope on the outside lane to the curb, provided the best protection against flooding.
Reid argued that point as the public works department's representative on a 1996 committee planning a revision of the city's design and construction standards. The opposition had its proponents as well: The committee was stacked with members of the Houston Contractors Association (HCA), and the contractors wanted a single slope, which is cheaper and easier to design and build.
Neither side would budge. But Reid's boss, Buddy Barnes, sided with the contractors. Though a dual slope had been required in the past, contractors weren't adhering to the plans, says Barnes, so why continue to ask them?
Reid gave up, though he calculated that the proposed single slope of five-sixteenths of an inch per foot would increase the risk of street flooding by 9 percent. He submitted his comments in writing to Barnes. That was the last he heard of it -- until the new, even weaker standard was published. "The next thing I know," Reid says, "we stop meeting, the [standard] comes out, and it's one-quarter inch [per foot]."
Reid calculates that the new standard will increase the risk of flooding by 22 percent.
Barnes says one of the primary reasons for reducing the city standard was to bring it in line with the county's, which is also just a quarter-inch per foot. But, as Reid pointed out in his report to Barnes, the majority of county roads have open ditches on the side, while the city primarily uses curbs and gutters. Open ditches handle flood water much better than curbs and gutters.
Besides, as another city engineer observes, "If the county standards are inferior, why use them?"
Matching the county standard may have indeed played into the decision. But on the thoroughfare slope and other standards adopted by the city, it appears that contractors and consultants virtually dictated the changes. "They made the regulations for us," says a city engineer familiar with the process.
Prior to 1996, the city's design and construction standards were a confusing and contradictory jumble that often resulted in costly errors. To make sense of the system, the city set up a number of technical committees and embarked on an ongoing effort to study and, if necessary, revise each of thousands of details and specifications.
Though public works engineers had input in the process, HCA and its sister trade group, the Association of Consulting Municipal Engineers (ACME), did much of the heavy lifting. In some cases, ACME drafted new standards and the city tweaked them from there. More often, city engineers wrote the initial guidelines, which were then reviewed by HCA, ACME and selected developers. The groups would then propose lengthy lists of revisions, which more often than not were incorporated into the final product.
Since consultants and contractors have to deal with the standards on a daily basis, it makes sense for them to be involved. But as with the quarter-inch slope, the results often benefited the private interests at the expense of the public. Storm sewers are now designed for a two-year rather than a three-year flood, meaning they can handle less rainfall before reaching capacity and overflowing. The use of a concrete barrier known as a trench dam to prevent gravel erosion around sewer pipe has been eliminated. The reason? "ACME didn't want it," explains a wastewater engineer.
The requirements for documenting the use of flagmen were also reduced. In the past, contractors have been caught overbilling for flagmen, an expense that is difficult to monitor. The solution? Slash the requirements. Where daily reports once had to include the names of flagmen, the hours they worked and other details, that's no longer the case. "You would see a change in the documentation," says street and bridge chief John Hatch, "because it went from very detailed to nothing."
Though Barnes notes that he, deputy public works director Richard Scott and director Jimmie Schindewolf make all final decisions on standards, the ongoing revisions are being coordinated by Ed Sherrill, a Brown & Root employee. Sherrill was brought over from the Greater Houston Wastewater Program to work on standards for the public works department's Engineering, Construction and Real Estate Group, which is headed by Barnes.
(In April, the city advertised an opening for a division manager to perform essentially the same job that Sherrill was doing. Sherrill was the only applicant considered, but he declined the job because the city would not pay him close enough to the $61,700 that was the top end of the annual salary range for the position. Sherrill was then offered a job as a public works deputy assistant director for more money, but he turned it down because the job had no Civil Service protection. Now, the city pays more than $200,000 to Brown & Root for the privilege of having Sherrill on loan.)
Contractors and consultants wield influence beyond design and construction standards. When the city was reconsidering its method of reimbursing consultants for engineering fees -- to move away from the excessive salary multipliers consultants charge for labor -- ACME weighed in with a letter to Richard Scott: "ACME recommends that the city continue its past practice of allowing reimbursable fees based on 'salary cost' times a multiplier."
ACME got its way.
-- Bob Burtman
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- This Houston Rockets Thing Is Going Nowhere
- Rice University President: Nobody Here Wants Campus-Carry
- There's No New Contract Yet, But UH's Tom Herman Says He's Sticking Around