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Why public-private partnerships are anti-taxpayer
State Highway 288 was built by a private equity firm, letting TxDOT abdicate its responsibility to both drivers and construction workers.
by Josephine Lee
Texas ObserverDecember 11, 2023
The sun was sinking toward the horizon when brothers Alejandro and Juan Simental drove their pickup less than 10 minutes from a Motel 6 to their job site: a pricey new toll road they were helping to build alongside busy State Highway 288. A week before, they had left their home in Arlington to work in the flat southern edge of Houston’s suburbs, the bustling intersection of State Highway 288 (SH 288) and Beltway 8. That’s where their employer, Choctaw Erectors, a steel construction company, was subcontracted to help build the Texas Department of Transportation’s latest privately operated tollway.
They shared their no-frills motel room with a coworker, sleeping only a few hours just to get up and work again. Their shifts were punishing—nine to 12 hours, often overnight, seven days a week. But that evening, as the Houston sky gradually dimmed to a streetlight-stained dark gray, Alejandro, Juan, and five others on their crew established a rhythm. Alternating thumps and whirrs sounded as they laid and bolted corrugated metal decking, piece by piece, onto the tollway’s four bridge girders, 85 feet above the ground.
As the sun began to rise on June 21, 2019, Alejandro, 21, who stood around 5 feet 3 inches tall and was stocky like his brother, was working on a section of the bridge just a few feet away from Juan. There were about 15 minutes left in their shift when Juan reached the end of the first girder. Realizing that the 6-foot double safety lanyard he wore, which was tied to a safety line, did not allow him to reach the second girder more than 7 feet away, Juan briefly unhooked the lanyard from his safety harness and walked across the steel decking.
Foreman Jorge Carlos was the only one to hear the scream as Juan tripped and fell 85 feet, head first. Seconds later, realizing his brother had fallen, Alejandro let the metal sheet he was holding drop from his hands and clatter to the ground. He rushed to an elevated boom lift that lowered him to his brother’s side.
Blood was already soaking into the soil. To the west of Juan’s feet lay his white hard hat and his right brown slip-on boot. His black plastic headlamp was still glowing. Co-workers gave Juan CPR. Police arrived in four minutes, the medic nine minutes later. That was too late. At 4:58 a.m., just two minutes before their shift was to end, Juan was pronounced dead. He was 22.
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