Taxpayer watchdog groups are urging Texas lawmakers to embrace a cost-saving method for construction projects that could lead to big savings for taxpayers. But one senator’s conflict of interest may present a major obstacle.

This session the Texas Senate will take up a sunset bill renewing the Texas Department of Transportation. As part of that bill, senators are likely to vote on whether to expand the agency’s authority to use more design-build contracts, a tool that could save taxpayers millions on highway construction projects.

Design-build is a contracting method where a single contractor is responsible for designing and building a project as opposed to the traditional method of design-bid-build. By contracting with a single firm to design and build roadways, taxpayers can see big savings – up to 29% according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Design-build methods allow contractors to improve efficiency by designing their projects around their strengths and available resources. But State Sen. Robert Nichols (R–Jacksonville) set design-build back several steps last session.

Nichols, who before running for office, was a long-time member of the Texas Transportation Commission, is now the Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

In his committee, Nichols altered House Bill 20 to permanently extend a provision that was set to expire which restricts TxDOT to just three design-build contracts per year. Nichols also changed HB 20 to increase the cost threshold necessary before TxDOT can use a design-build contract from $50 million to $150 million per project.

Savings for taxpayers means less money for road construction companies and design firms. In addition, some smaller construction firms object to design-build, saying they cannot compete with larger firms that offer both design and construction services.

Following the session, Nichols took in a huge fundraising haul from organizations that benefitted from his limitations on design-build.  In addition to approximately $50,000 in campaign contributions from the Associated General Contractors, Nichols also took in a $75,000 check from James Pitcock of Williams Brothers Construction. Pitcock’s company is responsible for building the Fred Hartman Bridge in Baytown and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas.

Although Nichols would be a natural candidate to carry the TxDOT sunset bill in the Senate, his financial connections to firms that stand to win or lose on the design-build issue could present a conflict of interest for the senator. Lt. Gov. Patrick and the other members of the senate will have to decide whether it is appropriate for Nichols to be the lead on issues involving design-build. It may end up being prudent for him not to be the author, or for the senator to recuse himself from the design-build issues specifically.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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