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Highway Robbery 

From Boston to Charlotte

During the 20 years it has managed Boston's disastrous Big Dig project, the engineering firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas has been investigated by federal, state and local authorities for everything from shoddy design to fraud and corruption. The company has been accused in government reports of lying to everyone from taxpayers to Wall Street. They've also cheated taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars that teams of government lawyers are currently working full-time to recover, so far with little success. But this time, Parsons Brinkerhoff may actually be in trouble.

The problem started in September, when it appeared that the $14 billion attempt to bury 7.5 miles of Boston's central artery roadway underground might actually be nearing completion. Then water broke though a wall panel and flooded the I-93 northbound tunnel, causing the traffic jam of the century. As it turns out, it was just one of hundreds of leaks from cracks and fissures that resulted from faulty construction and design. By February, the project's own engineers were refusing to certify that the tunnel was safe for people to drive through.

No one really knows how safe it is, since state employees and Parsons Brinckerhoff, which partnered on the project with a firm called Bechtel, have destroyed or refused to turn over documents containing crucial details about how it was constructed.

That naturally hacked off the investigators who requested them. Even Boston's corruption-jaded public was outraged. So, since January, federal prosecutors, the Massachusetts Attorney General and the Federal Highway Administration have all launched investigations into the activities of the company, in particular its habit of making multi-million dollar mistakes, then billing the public for them.

But there is a bright side. Things are looking up for Parsons Brinckerhoff in Mecklenburg County, where the company is doing the design and engineering work for the North Corridor commuter rail line. In fact, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) and city and transportation officials were so pleased with Parsons that in May they added another agreement to its contract worth up to $4.75 million for even more design and engineering work.

Those of you who haven't followed the Big Dig saga probably aren't aware that Parsons Brinckerhoff is the company that, according to a Massachusetts state inspector general's report, deliberately conspired with public officials to hide the true cost of the $14 billion Big Dig project from the public and Wall Street with estimates that suggested that it would come in at around $8 billion.

The reason this is important is that Parsons Brinckerhoff also did the cost estimates on Charlotte-Mecklenburg's mass transit plan back in 1998 when officials here were selling it to the public. By 2002, when cost estimates had grown to 2.5 times Parsons' original estimate of $881 million, it was discovered that the company had "neglected" to factor in inflation. (The official cost estimate has since risen to $6 billion.)

At the time, the company didn't return the Charlotte Observer's phone calls and later told Creative Loafing that the employee who oversaw the Charlotte project in 1998 no longer worked there, so they had no idea how it happened. Right.

Parsons officials apparently do pick up the phone when they aren't too busy being subpoenaed in fraud investigations — if CATS calls bearing multi-million dollar contracts.

After Parsons' misunderestimations in 1998, it's a wonder they can get work at all in this county. That they are doing quite well for themselves here is especially disturbing when you consider that CL covered Parsons' long history of corruption in painstaking detail in 2003.

At the time, members of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), the governing board for the transit system, told us that they were unaware of Parsons' Big Dig history when the company was awarded additional contracts in 2000. The mayors of several of the county's cities who sit on the MTC, including Mayor Pat McCrory, told us they wanted answers because, according to transit protocol, a check of a construction firm's project history is supposed to be part of the bid process. Transit czar Ron Tober also denied knowledge of Parsons' checkered past through a spokesperson.

In fact, we never really got a straight answer about why Big Dig never came up in MTC discussions.

Given that these same folks definitely knew Parsons' history when elected officials approved more work by the company on the North line in May, it's safe to assume that our local leaders, in particular McCrory and Tober, simply don't care if the company misunderestimates stuff or flat out robs us blind.

Either that or they appreciate the company's propensity for faulty math at convenient times and think they can keep Parsons under control with tight contracts. Boston thought that, too.

"You do have to monitor them," Massachusetts Former Secretary of Transportation Frederick Salvucci told the Boston Globe about Bechtel-Parsons Brinckerhoff in September 1994. "But the most important role of your monitoring is to make sure that you're getting what you paid for, and yeah, you don't want them going crazy on costs. You need a lot of public employees to do that."

Great.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com.

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