The challenges facing members of the Florida Transportation Builders Association (FTBA) are the kind that association board Chairman Albert J. Lopez is well-suited to meet. The challenges are intractable and numerous; Lopez is persistent and systematic.
“He’s a bulldog,” said association President Robert G. Burleson, “which is a great trait for a contractor to have.”
The 42-year-old Lopez took over the chairmanship last fall, his sixth year on the board. He acknowledges that he is “a little bit tenacious. I try to take care of things, to get things done.”
The nonprofit association has been the lobbying arm of the transportation construction industry for nearly 70 years. It began life representing road builders, but has evolved to where it speaks for individuals and firms that build transportation systems as well as those who furnish materials, equipment or services for such builders.
Lopez’s family company is one of those builders. General Asphalt Co. Inc. was formed in 1966 by his father, Edward Lopez, and several partners. The company manufactures and lays hot mix asphalt and related products. Lopez is a vice president of the firm. His older brother, Robert, is president.
Albert Lopez became acquainted with Burleson because Lopez was involved in the building industry outside General Asphalt. Lopez was serving on the board of directors of the Engineering Contractors Association of South Florida in the early 1990s when Burleson became aware of him.
“When you spot someone who will work for the good of the overall industry, you want to grab him,” Burleson explained. “He’s one of those people who are natural-born leaders, very charismatic.”
So Lopez became an association board director in 1997.
The transportation construction industry in Florida experiences some of the same challenges facing its counterparts in other states and regions — fundamental issues such as getting utilities out of the way of builders and maintaining a skilled work force
“The issues are difficult, but we have had some of the same problems for years,” said Burleson, who was a contractor himself before becoming an association officer in 1989.
Lopez has a slightly different list of recurring headaches. They include securing industry funding, meeting department of transportation specifications and overcoming difficulties with the contract bidding process.
“Legislatively, we try to make sure that we have done everything we can to ensure funding for the industry for this year, for five years from now and 10 years from now,” said Lopez about the association’s lobbying efforts.
The board’s long-term perspective is that the state must continue to develop its tax base so that it can fund the industry adequately as it tries to meet the infrastructure needs of Florida.
Lopez also spoke about the wrestle that builders have with the “ever-changing specifications” of the Florida DOT, including its various methods of contracting projects. Contracts range from basic low bid and lump sum documents to design-build contracts and a bid average method (BAM) that seems to be losing favor with DOT officials.
Lopez recited the problems with each type of contract. He lamented that there does not seem to be a resolution in sight wherein a standard bidding process is established.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he explained, “a work in progress, as we keep trying to determine what DOT wants.”
And how can the association and industry know which method really is best? When bidders generally are satisfied with the fairness of a bid, and the DOT and owners of a project are satisfied with the timeliness and quality of the completed work.
As it is, Lopez said, builders are not happy and “the Department of Transportation complains that it is spending too much of its time fighting claims.”
Despite that “ongoing dilemma,” Lopez said that the association leadership believes the FTBA is making a difference in representing its members.
“At least we are trying to fine-tune problems, to make things work,” he said.
The association has 280 members scattered across Florida, with its full-time staff in Tallahassee. The board meets quarterly or as needed, but the chairman is more actively involved in lobbying and recruiting efforts.
When the world of terror crashed its way onto the nation’s conscience on Sept. 11, the economy of the United States was shaken as governments and individuals reacted to the new reality.
However, Lopez stated that the impact on Florida construction was minimal. “From an insurance and bonding standpoint, probably the market has gotten a little bit harder for bid and surety bonds,” he said. “But our industry was not affected much.”
He also credits mandates by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that speeded up scheduling of construction projects to stimulate economic activity.
The association itself probably was affected less by the terrorist attacks than it has been by another trend: the merging of contracting firms. Lopez said that “over the past three to five years, there has been a significant amount of consolidations,” thus drawing down the pool of potential dues-paying members. “Our association is trying to keep up with that.”
A short list of purposes for the FTBA is as follows:
• To promote public understanding and support of an integrated transportation system;
• To investigate new methods and technology in building and maintaining systems of transportation;
• To promote honesty and integrity among public officials and private firms involved in the industry; and
• To be a watchdog for the industry.
When the FTBA chairman is wearing his other hat, as vice president of General Asphalt Co., he helps oversee the work of 125 employees and two asphalt plants in south Florida that produce more than 400,000 tons (362,874 t) of hot mix asphalt a year.
When contracts are plentiful, General Asphalt focuses on airport and highway work, with 60 to 70 percent of its contracts in those areas. “But when things are a little bit dried up, we do lots of private work for developers,” Lopez noted.
General Asphalt currently is contracted to supply some 300,000 tons (272,155 t) of asphalt for a runway project at Miami International Airport.
Lopez grew familiar with the asphalt process by working his way up through the family company. He began in the asphalt lab, then worked with paving crews, did bidding and estimating work and was a general superintendent, before reaching his current position in 1990.
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