Good News About The Recession: Those Massive County Projects Will Cost Less

When Harris County decided to build a package of big projects like a new Jury Assembly Building and some Tollway construction, it thought it would have to spend $332 million doing so.

Then the recession hit. All of a sudden construction companies, and their subcontractors, needed work now. More of them were bidding on projects, which means bids had to be lower to be competitive.

The result: The package will now cost $222 million, a savings of $110 million.

"While no one hopes for a down economy, it does create an opportunity for Harris County to accomplish many of our more expensive long-term projects for far less money than we might otherwise be able to," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. "It also has the added benefit of keeping Harris County residents working and getting our traffic moving."

Of course, low bids have problems of their own.

You put in a low bid, get the job, start it and then all of a sudden little problems and "unforeseen circumstances" start mysteriously cropping up. You've already got the contract; it's too much of a hassle to start over, so bingo, you're in business.

We've got a call in to County Judge Ed Emmett's office to see if they're planning for this contingency, or if they feel the current policies protect them.

Update: And spokesman Joe Stinebaker comes through -- "I checked with [deputy director of construction programs] Rich Elwood, as this is far outside my area of expertise (assuming I even have an area of expertise). Rich says it's a good question, but that you've pretty much answered it -- that the current county policies would prevent that. He said all construction projects are reviewed and managed in-house by the county and that they review every single change order request for validity and necessity before presenting it to Commissioners Court for approval."

Change orders are expected on the Jury Assembly project, Stinebaker says, because historically such projects have them. "But it's our job to make sure they're not gouging the county," Elwood told him, "and the contractors know that."

The threat of being barred from future contracts is "a not inconsequential hammer that the county holds," Stinebaker tells Hair Balls.

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Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly