Competitive bidding led to New Central Library debacle

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Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

In 2006, Austin voters approved a $90 million bond to build the New Central Library. Since then the project’s price tag has bloated to $125 million and was projected to open this May after multiple delays. Much to the chagrin of the Austin City Council, that date has been pushed back again to November this year.

The New Central Library has been given many names such as “the library for the future” featured on the Austin Public Library website or my personal favorite — “the MoPac of libraries.”

But we should’ve anticipated these delays since Texas has an abysmal history with construction contractors due to legislature that permits competitive bidding with little oversight.

Competitive bidding is a practice where either a public or private project is contracted by an outside source. It’s competitive in the sense that construction companies try to bid the lowest price. This is attractive to lawmakers who don’t want to unnecessarily spend the taxpayer’s money and Texas law makes it easy to cut those corners.

But competitive bidding can come with unintended consequences — and you don’t have to look farther than MoPac. The construction company CH2M was tasked to build the MoPac Improvement Project and completion was estimated to take place in September 2015. It’s currently two years overdue and not only has the city of Austin given the contract to another company, but they also fined CH2M $20 million for the delays.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Plenty of red flags were raised during the bidding process when CH2M bid $136.6 million for the project, which was $35 million short of what the engineer estimated and nearly $60 million less than the second lowest bid. This underestimation is deliberately designed to mislead taxpayers and there should be stricter enforcement of accountability measures such as the $20 million penalty given to CH2M. Even then, Texas laws make it hard to enforce penalties.

Hence the nickname, “the MoPac of libraries.” For voters, the New Central Library delays and price increases go against what they originally consented to. Council Member Don Zimmerman told KXAN that he believes “the library was sold to us on deceptive practices,” calling into question the integrity of those who proposed the project.

Ultimately, these delays and inflated budgets are just a lesson in transparency. A privilege we enjoy as voters is the ability to foresee developments within our community and the right to participate and be informed in government. Competitive bidding is antithetical to that because the projects we approve get passed into the private sector, essentially removing the voter from further decision-making.

We need to put more pressure on our officials to value quality of construction over price and have stricter oversight on the development of these projects. Price shouldn’t always be the deciding factor and it’s our job to enforce that.

Fernandez is rhetoric and writing and Spanish senior from Allen. She is a senior columnist.