White Settlement bridge

White Settlement bridge. (Photo by Paul Harral).

A top official with the Texas Department of Transportation reported on Wednesday construction of the White Settlement Road bridge that has plagued business owners in the area for nearly five years is scheduled to be complete at the end of 2020.

But the attorney for the contractor building the bridge, one of three bridges that are part of the $1.17 million Panther Island project, said the completion date is still unsettled.

“I have been told by my people that they have not agreed to 2020 and they can’t give a schedule date at this time,” said Frank Hill, attorney for the bridge contractor, Texas Sterling Construction Co. of Houston.

Loyl Bussell, district engineer for the nine-county Fort Worth District of TxDOT, accompanied Mayor Betsy Price and several Fort Worth City Council members to a meeting of White Settlement business owners, where they planned to announce the newest completion for the bridge and new measures that have been put in place to curtail construction delays and expedite work progress.

Price said she had contacted Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees TXDOT, for assistance in moving White Settlement bridge construction along faster.

Bugg, in turn, contacted Bussell, who brought in more resources, including a team of engineers from Austin who are experts in bridge construction.

“We’ve put in measures to get this thing moving,” Bussell said. “We have engineers on the spot who can deal with issues as they come up.”

Bussell describe the bridge design of White Settlement and the other Panther Island bridges with their V-piers as “unique.”

“I haven't seen another one like it,” he said. “That creates some challenges but we are addressing it.”

Construction of the bridges began in 2014 and have been plagued by delays, including reported design problems. The bridges were designed by the Fort Worth firm of Freese and Nichols, which also has engineers on-site during constriction.

Construction of the bridges was originally anticipated to be complete on a staggered schedule between 2017 and 2018.

A TxDOT official announced a construction schedule in January that set completion of the three bridges on a staggered schedule between 2020 and 2021.

Officials then announced that they couldn’t confirm the schedule because Sterling Construction has been unable to present an acceptable schedule. The contractor has suggested that it could take until 2023 or later to finish the bridges.

TxDOT and the city of Fort Worth share management of the project because two of the bridges, Henderson and North Main streets, are part of the state highway system. White Settlement is a Fort Worth city street.

The bridges are part of the Panther Island project, which is being developed through a partnership of the city, Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District and it’s subsidiary, the Trinity River Vision Authority.

TxDOT and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are among other agencies also involved in the project.

At an estimated cost of $65 million, the bridges are being paid for with state and federal funds as well as local money from the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the TRWD.

Price again said the bridges are fully funded and that money is not an issue.

Hill disputed that statement.

While efforts to bring the parties together to deal with construction challenges is a step in the right direction, he said payment for his client is a major point of contention.

“I hate to be a wet blanket here but we are more than two years behind, over 200 days that have been given up,” he said. “$65 million isn’t close to paying for the cost of the bridges.”

Hill said he has been in ongoing discussions with TxDOT officials in Austin to recover millions of dollars he claims his client is owed.

“They have paid $6.5 million so there it is,” Hill said.

Bussell said he was unaware of outstanding money claims and that financial issues are customarily paid at the end of a project after any penalties against a contractor are assessed.

Bussell acknowledged that the in hindsight, these bridges are a “difficult design” to construct.

Freese and Nichols has never acknowledged that the design was to blame for the delays.

“We have full confidence in our design of the bridges,” the company said in its only public statement on the bridges. “Multiple independent reviewers have confirmed the suitability, structural integrity and constructability of the design.

“As further verification, a test mockup of the V-pier demonstrated that the bridges can be constructed as designed,” the company said. “Minor design clarifications are typical on complex projects, and Freese and Nichols has promptly addresses issues within our control as we have become aware of them.”

White Settlement business owners have been the most impacted by bridge construction. As part of the state highway system, there are work-around routes for the North Main and Henderson construction areas.

“A lot of us have been hurt and lost business,” said Steve Metcalf, chairman of the White Settlement Road Development Task Force and owner of a Honda and Acura service shop. “Our goal is to get the bridge finished and road open but want it done properly and safely.”

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