Taraborelli is ready to make landowners an offer they can't refuse.
With Christmas less than two days away, most of the buildings and businesses in downtown Conroe were closed Friday. However, there was activity - and a sense of urgency - in the offices of the Montgomery County Transportation Program.
Located in a renovated bank drive-through across from Conroe City Hall, the Montgomery County Transportation Program is the formal designation given to the five "major" road construction projects local voters approved during the $160 million bond election in September. Jennie Taraborelli, of Houston-based Pate Engineers, is the MCTP program manager, and it is her task to find a way to expedite those projects.
To that end, Taraborelli has established what she considers a "very aggressive," four-year construction schedule. That timetable is roughly half of what it would take the Texas Department of Transportation to complete the same list of projects, she said.
"We will only move this thing forward by setting aggressive expectations," Taraborelli said.
There was hope the much-needed expansion of FM 1488 might begin by the end of this year. July is now the anticipated start of construction of the section between Texas 242 and FM 2978.
While campaigning for the bonds' passage in September, Precinct 2 Commissioner Craig Doyal said bulldozers would be "on the ground" working on FM 1488 before the end of the year if the voters approved funding through the innovative "pass-through" financing. He admits now that was a "very optimistic" timeline.
"I guarantee you that nobody is dragging any heels on this end," said Doyal, who attended an MCTP staff meeting Friday morning. "It takes time to get the pieces in place and make progress. But it is taking more time than any of us had hoped it would. Then again, there's not a project that has moved as quickly as I would like."
According to Taraborelli, FM 1488's nemesis remains the very thing that has dogged it since the project's initial funding in 2001 - right-of-way acquisition. There are some landowners along the highway who believe "this is their moment to capitalize," she said.
The time may soon arrive when the solution may be to use eminent domain and start condemnation proceedings, she said.
"We want the people to receive fair value for their land, but we can't have the project continue on forever," Taraborelli said. "Our plan is to get the 1488 right of way in hand so we can bid the clearing contract in March."
Work on the section of FM 1488 between Interstate 45 and Texas 242 won't begin until the summer of 2007, but it has to do primarily with the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Areas of Jones State Park along the highway were cleared last summer to encourage the bird to relocate to an "improved habitat" farther away from road traffic, Taraborelli said. TxDOT agreed in a state environmental assessment in January 2005 to withhold construction for two of the bird's breeding seasons.
"It will be faster for us to become TxDOT's surrogate in this matter rather than starting the process all over again," she said.
During the interim, focus will shift to the stretch of FM 1488 between Texas 242 and FM 2978. As the primary contractor for the MCTP, Pate Engineers isn't restricted by TxDOT philosophy.
"TxDOT tends to think in linear terms," Taraborelli said. "Our plan is to run the projects concurrently, so we can make progress. Eight years is too long for these projects. It's our plan to give the local entities control of the projects after four years. TxDOT would look at this schedule and say there is no way this can be done."
Taraborelli, who currently oversees a staff of eight, said Pate Engineers would not receive a bonus for achieving its accelerated timeline. Reputation is the company's primary motivation.
"Everybody in the state is looking at this project. We pride ourselves on doing good, quality work," she said. "We're not cutting steps. We're shuffling resources into the right places to make it happen."
Howard Roden can be reached at email@example.com.
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