Change is in Order

County road construction costs go up as contractors win approval for add-ons that boost the price.

To muffle the whir, buzz and screech of some 30,000 cars that go in and out of Hidden Valley and congested neighborhoods outside Sabino Canyon, Pima County taxpayers are building walls that cost nearly $30 a square foot.

That's $29.33 for each masonry block for a portion of a 1,338-square-foot retaining wall on the west side of Kolb Road as it splits away from Sabino Canyon Road.

The extra $39,243 for this part of the wall, as well as $48,400 for a dual-coat stucco finish, are add-ons that the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved for the Sabino-Kolb intersection. It's just one of 57 projects included in what was projected to be a $350 million transportation improvement bond that county voters approved in 1997.

But these add-ons, among three bundles of change orders that supervisors have approved for the Ashton Co., a well-connected, longtime Tucson contractor working to expand the intersection, show why the bond program will cost considerably more than projected.

Changes, some in upgrades and some that arise from unforeseen conditions, have boosted the price of just the Sabino-Kolb project by more than 32 percent, to $4.6 million.

Supervisors chose Ashton a little more than a year ago after the company said it could get the Sabino-Kolb job done for $3.47 million. But Ashton was soon knocking for more money.

The first batch of changes that supervisors approved in April of last year was for $461,146. Next came $42,143 for "miscellaneous landscaping" under the county's Native Plan Preservation Plan that included salvage and transplant of cactus, trees and other plants that were to be stored in one of Ashton's holding yards for up to eight months. That change order also included $5,890 for 550 feet of five-foot-high chain link fence around the Tucson Equestrian Center west of the roadwork.

The most recent changes, including the restyled wall, total $568,688 and were approved by supervisors on February 5, the next to last meeting for former supervisors' Chair Raúl Grijalva, who is now running for Congress.

Though it is hardly the largest project, the high-profile Sabino-Kolb project provides a window on actual work within the county's sputtering transportation plan. Supervisors, almost without hesitation, have approved requests by contractors and county Field Engineering Manager Thomas J. Kilargis to boost construction spending on 21 occasions on the 11 projects that have were first to start the 57-project bond program.

Changes have so far cost taxpayers, who are repaying these transportation bonds for the first time with the county's share of gasoline taxes, $5.2 million, according to records examined by the Tucson Weekly. That is 10 percent of the $51.4 million in work that has been done or is underway.

What was projected to be a $470 transportation improvement plan lasting 12 years is now estimated to cost $662 million.

Engineering, design and other professional service contracts within the 1997 transportation bond also have increased. Unlike the construction contracts that are put out for bid, they are negotiated. Firms are selected from lists approved by staff and supervisors and fees are set. But costs on 11 projects have escalated by more than $1.6 million, to $9.5 million, county contract documents show. That 17 percent increase came via amendments and change orders supervisors approved.

Tetra Tech, the engineering firm that bought out Collins-Piña, won approval for the largest increase in consulting services, 65 percent, for work on Wetmore and Ruthrauf roads between La Cholla Boulevard and Fairview Avenue. Before leaving Tetra Tech, the firm's point man in Tucson, Raul Piña, was a fundraiser for both Grijalva's political campaigns and the county's bond election in 1997. Pina served as the chairman of the political committee that successfully campaigned for the bonds and the firm put $2,100 into it. He and Tetra Tech colleagues put another $2,500 into campaigns for supervisors two years ago.

Tetra Tech landed a $787,000 contract for the Wetmore project and then filed four change orders and amendments to boost the price to $1.3 million.

John Hollingsworth's Environmental and Engineering Consultants, Inc., saw its $1.2 million consulting contract for county work on Valencia Road, from Mark Road to Camino de la Tierra, inflate by 45 percent. The firm boosted its price by $552,796 because the work expanded to include plans for an additional mile of road adjacent to the Pascua Yaqui's new Casino del Sol.

Environmental and Engineering Consultants put $1,300 into the campaign that persuaded voters to approve what is the largest ever--2.2 times greater than the four previous road bond packages combined--county transportation plan.

Ashton joined construction giants Sundt and Granite with the largest contributions to the 1997 bond campaign, $7,500 each.

A spin-off firm, Southern Arizona Paving, is headed by Marlene Ashton and Lawrence Ashton. It is a structure that makes the firm eligible for incentives and favorable bidding through women and minority enterprise programs such as the one the county instituted seven years ago. Southern Arizona Paving put $2,500 into the political campaign for the bond plan in 1997.

It won work in South Tucson, home turf to powerful Democratic Supervisor Dan Eckstrom.

Southern Arizona Paving provided the lowest of four bids on November 10, 1998, just a year after voters approved the county road plan. But what started as a $2.17 million project ballooned to $4.46 million, with changes in asphalt type, specifications and additional work on sidewalks and curbs.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the scope of work changed to include more work on South Tucson neighborhood streets, including what are now ubiquitous speed humps. Paved alleys are not uncommon in Tucson neighborhoods.

City of Tucson officials have been particularly vexed because Eckstrom was successful in redirecting $10 million in county bond funds for widening 22nd Street to more neighborhood work in South Tucson and other parts of his South Side District 2. The move was spurred by the lack of a promised city match and requests by the city to move the $10 million for construction projects on Grant Road or other crowded Tucson streets.

Change orders have affected roadwork on the North Side as well. KE&G Development landed the work for widening of River Road from La Cholla Boulevard to La Canada Drive in 1998 with a $3.16 million bid. But KE&G filed change orders that bumped the contract value to $3.82 million.

For work on another section of River Road, between Shannon Road and La Cholla, Sundt Construction won the contract with a low bid of $3.73 million. Supervisors approved a 9 percent boost in a change order for $363,196.

Supervisors selected Granite Construction, with a bid of $7.25 million, for River Road widening between Thornydale and Shannon roads. Supervisors then boosted the cost with additions that cost nearly $86,000. Included are four gates, for more than $3,300, for access to the linear park.

Ashton won, with a bid of $11.28 million, the bond plan's most expensive project to date, for River Road between First and Campbell avenues. Compliance with the Native Plan Preservation Plan cost an extra $161,118 to salvage, transport and transplant 79 trees. The contract called for tree maintenance for one month. And 963 cacti also were moved to the county's Rillito Race Track.

Work on Sunrise Drive from Swan to Craycroft roads has agitated the drivers of the 31,000 automobiles on that stretch every day. Supervisors awarded the work to Ashton despite the company's bid of $8.7 million, $400,000 more than Granite. And the cost has increased another $255,951 because of work to protect a slope and the addition of a 400-foot pedestrian handrail for $4,400.

Work to alleviate the horribly congested Thornydale Road between Ina and Cortaro Farms roads, a stretch that handles nearly 23,000 cars a day, has been stop-start and mired in destruction of desert vegetation. Hunter Contracting was awarded a $8.94 million contract that was increased by $331,270. An interim habitat restoration provision was added to the contract, boosting the price by $200,000, including $130,000 for boxed trees. Another $131,270 was added for roadway excavation and hauling. That included $7,220 for stockpiling rent and maintenance at a site on Orange Grove Road and Interstate 10.