(Image: Bernards in Lubbock County)
Bernards – liquor/convenience store and gas station – lies quietly in the shadow of the bridge to nowhere. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Construction on a new overpass along U.S. Highway 87 at Farm to Market Road 41, starting in October 2021, was supposed to bring something better. But for Bernards, its customers and area residents, it’s a disaster after work stopped on the unfinished overpass in December 2022.
“It would be swamped,” said Herrlinda Thrash, co-owner of Bernards with her husband. She was speaking of a time before concrete barriers blocked the path between Bernards and most of its customers to the west.
“It was really pretty exciting when they first started. So, we said, ‘We can deal with it. We’ll budget the funds. We’ll make it through,’” Thrash said.
Excitement has become doubt.
“I would say we’ve lost about 98 percent of our business and I’m not exaggerating,” Thrash said.
The Texas Department of Transportation blamed Allen Butler Construction, holding the company in default last July and removing it from the project. The search for a suitable contractor to replace Allen Butler continues.
But a source in the company said TxDOT is the problem due to an engineering disagreement.
The trip to Bernards
Ordinarily driving from Lubbock to Bernards is straightforward. Take the Highway 87 south until you see Bernards and turn left.
As you continue south past Cook’s Garage and Lubbock Cooper High School, you’ll eventually see an incomplete overpass on the horizon. You can’t go onto the overpass or turn left, driving past Bernard’s with an army of concrete barriers guarding against a left turn onto FM 41.
For a mile, potential turnarounds are blocked.
There’s no going straight on FM 41 from one side of Highway 87 to the other. You can go from southbound 87 to the west on 41 but not east. You can go from northbound 87 to the east but not the west.
“We’ve had different incidences where the police or fire department or ambulances can’t make it to where they need to in a timely manner,” Thrash said.
One of the recent accidents involved an ambulance, Thrash said. She also said customers are afraid to slow down long enough to turn into the parking lot for fear of getting hit from behind.
A spokesperson for TxDOT, Dianah Ascencio, said emergency crews have not complained. But others have.
Not just Bernards
An open records request to TxDOT showed written complaints from people who live or drive in the area.
“What poor leadership has let this go for this long no matter who is at fault?” wrote James Carpenter. This construction has gone on for it seems couple of years. Now all construction has been stopped. Carpenter pointed out the area has more than one problem – including flooding, going on to call the project a major waste of taxpayer money.
Someone by the initials S.B. wrote, “The abandoned construction on Hwy 87 and FM 41 is a major hazard. It is dangerous and alternate routes into Lubbock add an unreasonable amount of time to adjust to on a daily basis.”
Sadie Alderson wrote, “While this section of road posed a serious danger and we were pleased about the promise of an overpass, the project site now poses an even higher risk.”
Clara Aragon complained drivers are detouring from 41 to nearby County Road 7900 – making the traffic unbearable. CR 7900 is a dirt road. “The dirt/dust congestion is making us sick. In addition, it has devalued our property (killing our trees) and making our home unlivable,” she wrote.
Failed to comply
When TxDOT put Allen Butler on notice for the $21.7 million project, it cited three problems.
• Sub-contractors and suppliers needed to get paid.
• “All environmental deficiencies must be corrected.”
• Support panels were not in place.
Environmental deficiencies included erosion control and storm water pollution prevention, TxDOT said. The cancelation notice said Allen Butler was given 10 days to respond to the concerns but “failed to comply.”
An Allen Butler employee – who asked that his name not be used – blamed the state agency.
“All the problems point back to TxDOT. They refuse to acknowledge it,” the mid-level manager said.
Engineers for Allen Butler wanted changes to make the project turn out correctly, but they would cost more money. TxDOT said no, according to the manager.
Thrash heard the same thing. When the workers were on site, they would come into the store and talk, she said.
“They said there were problems … with the engineering part of it. There were some things that were not quite right,” Thrash said.
Thrash thought it was maybe the length of the bridge span. But our source did not disclose those details.
Another disagreement – there is now a paved area in front of Bernards which is the size of a small parking lot. It’s encircled by curbs so no one can drive through it or park on it.
The manager claimed it was built to deal with a drainage plan error by TxDOT. For Bernards, it’s just one more obstacle to getting customers into the store.
As for paying the subcontractors, the manager at Allen Butler said they got paid. LubbockLights.com reached out to some of the local and statewide subcontractors – eight in all – but never heard back.
No bankruptcy records
The people who submitted written complaints to TxDOT said they heard Allen Butler Construction went bankrupt or was shutting down. Thrash heard something similar.
“The employees that were in here for lunch were telling us that they were keeping them on that day because they had to gather all the equipment, because they were having an auction to try to pay off the bank,” Thrash said.
But Allen Butler is still in business and still officially the contractor on three TxDOT projects – two of them in the Lubbock District.
Related link: TxDOT project tracker.
LubbockLights.com searched bankruptcy records nationwide and found nothing under the name Allen Butler Construction Inc. or ABCI. However, we found in the summer of 2023 Allen Butler hired a firm to auction off equipment including backhoes, excavators, and asphalt trucks. That might be the source of the rumors.
Our source did not reveal the company’s financial status.
“You don’t know what to believe,” Thrash said. “We never got a call back from TxDOT. So right now, everything’s just up in the air.”
‘It’s almost like no one cares’
Multiple times TxDOT did not return Thrash’s calls, she said.
“We’ve gone up there to talk to them on a couple of occasions. But as far as them returning the call, no. We’re out here hanging by a thread. It’s almost like no one cares,” she said.
“When we travel or whatever, I’ll look at construction sites. I see that they make allowances,” Thrash said, adding there’s always some way to get into the businesses. “Why would they not do the same? Just because we’re way out here?.”
Things were so bad a farmer let her and her husband drive across his field every morning to get to the store. She said – for a time – it was impossible to get to the store from Highway 87 or from FM 41.
“We’d sit here. We’d take naps,” Thrash said.
However, the source from Allen Butler disputed the claim of no access to Bernards.
“TxDOT would never let us do that,” he said, adding there had to be at least one way in and out.
And while Thrash was not happy with the construction company, she felt TxDOT needs to do better.
“I would say what they have done, that it was a three-ring circus. They could have had a little more compassion, more thought about others. We didn’t feel like they cared whether they put us under or not” she said.
(Slideshow images: Bernards in Lubbock County along Highway 87 at FM 41)
Don’t cross over
At some point after work stopped, drivers crossed through the abandoned construction zone. They could get to Bernards without driving an extra two miles.
“No one’s been working on it. People started crossing over and, well, we were happy because we were getting customers,” Thrash said.
It didn’t last.
“They brought these cement barriers and they put them up in that one spot to keep people from crossing over. So there went our little burst of energy there. So that did away with our little customer base right there,” she said,
The man from Allen Butler confirmed that TxDOT wanted the barriers to keep people from crossing over.
When asked why TxDOT keeps people from crossing, Ascencio answered, “Safety is our concern because this is still considered an active work zone.”
Thrash said, “Our customers have all scattered.”
“There’s also talk that they’re going to have to tear everything down and start over,” Thrash said.
Ascencio said, “No, it will not need to start from scratch.”
The Allen Butler source thought the project could go forward with changes.
TxDOT is working with a surety company to get another contractor. Surety is like insurance. Contractors must sign up with a surety company and if a contractor cannot finish a project, TxDOT makes the surety company take responsibility.
“Since we do not have a contractor in place, we do not have a timeline. However, the original completion date was scheduled for October 2024,” Ascencio said, adding the work is 62 percent done.
TxDOT cannot answer any questions about Bernards because of “pending litigation,” Ascencio added. Thrash confirmed she and her husband have been talking to a lawyer.
“I’m just – we’re just at a loss. We don’t know what else can happen,” she said,
As of this week, LubbockLights.com did not find a lawsuit in Lubbock County or the federal court system.