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Transit Company Profited From Own Mistakes 

Boston Globe tightens screws on outfit Charlotte hired for its transit system

In 1997, transportation engineer David Beck made a shocking discovery. The 19,600-seat Boston Fleet Center was missing. The arena was supposed to be accounted for in engineering plans for the Big Dig, Boston's now-infamous effort to bury 7.5 miles of its central artery roadway underground.Instead, the plans for the spot where the building was supposed to sit showed an obstacle-free area for contractors to lay utility lines, the Boston Globe reported last week. Although Beck immediately warned his employer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, that the building was missing, the company ignored his concerns, and construction continued for months before the company acknowledged that the lines weren't supposed to go there. In case this doesn't seem like a big deal, note that this "mistake" cost taxpayers $991,000.

"It fell through the cracks, if you will," a top company engineer told the Globe.

Hundreds of similar engineering issues "fell through the cracks" on Big Dig, the paper reported last week, ultimately leading to at least $1.1 billion of the cost overruns on the $14.6 billion project that was supposed to cost $2.6 billion.

Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, in a partnership with another company called Bechtel, was the top construction manager on the financially disastrous Big Dig. Parsons Brinckerhoff, as we have previously reported, is the same company that is currently under contract with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to oversee planning for crucial parts of our regional mass transit system, which taxpayers are paying for with a half-cent sales tax voters approved in 1998.

CATS officials still have not provided detailed answers to Creative Loafing's questions about how a selection/evaluation transit committee managed to recommend hiring Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas and the unrelated Parsons Transportation Corp. to oversee engineering and planning for critical parts of this region's mass transit system. As CL has reported, over the last decade both companies have developed stark histories of deceiving the public and government officials about the true costs of transit projects and then benefiting directly from project cost overruns.

While we waited for answers from CATS officials last week, one shocking revelation after another unfolded in Boston. An investigation by the Globe revealed that during the 17 years it managed Big Dig, Parsons Brinckerhoff neglected to perform basic engineering work it had agreed to in its contracts -- such as conducting field surveys, and verifying the location of utility lines and buildings like the Fleet Center. Some $357 million in cost overruns resulted when contractors found different conditions than appeared on the company's designs. According to the findings of the Globe investigation, the two-company consortium signed off on final design drawings that were incomplete and error-filled, ultimately leading to at least $750 million in cost overruns. The companies also failed to heed warnings from their own engineers, several of whom, including Beck, claim they were fired for pointing them out. The companies have settled federal suits with at least three and possibly as many as a dozen former employees who claim they were fired for similar reasons.

In almost every case, the Globe investigation found, the companies solved costly design errors by billing the state for hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to contractors to fix their own mistakes. Company spokespeople deny the companies are at fault and continue to insist that the partnership saved taxpayers money by "shortening Big Dig's schedule" and coming up with "ingenious solutions to engineering challenges."

So far, though, the Massachusetts State Senate isn't buying it. Last Friday, it voted 38-0 to extend the statute of limitations that bars the state from filing legal claims against the company for its mistakes to 2016. Before the vote, the statute had been six years, leaving the state unable to make claims against the companies for a large part of the $1.6 billion in overruns.

While some of these revelations about Parsons Brinckerhoff are new, they fit into a general pattern of deception that has been documented in papers across the country. Before the company was hired to work on Charlotte's mass transit system, a six-member consultant evaluation committee, which included CATS Director Ron Tober, Charlotte Department of Transportation Director Jim Humphrey, Huntersville Transportation Planner Bill Coxe and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Martin Cramton was supposed to review the company's experience and project histories before the Charlotte City Council made the final decision to hire them.

Specifically, CL still wants to know whether the committee members were aware of Parsons Brinckerhoff's well-publicized role as construction manager on Boston's Big Dig and all the problems and scandals that went with it. National media have carried coverage of the company's Big Dig scandals, including revelations that the company conspired with Big Dig officials to hide the true costs of the project from the public and Wall Street bond investors.

Also readily available, both in national newspapers and on the web, was information about Parsons Brinckerhoff and Parsons Transportation Corp.'s involvement in the famous Hollywood Boulevard collapse that resulted after representatives of both companies approved the substitution of shoddy materials during the construction of a tunnel on the Los Angeles Red Line. The collapse resulted in over 1,000 lawsuits worth over a billion dollars against the California Transit Authority, which was paying the companies to oversee and complete the project.

So far, Charlotte Department of Transportation Director Jim Humphrey, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Martin Cramton, have not returned our calls, and Tober apparently continues to be too busy to speak with us. Through a spokesperson, Tober told CL he is aware that there were problems on both the L.A. Red Line Project and on the Big Dig, but was not aware of the details of these problems.

Why the committee's review of the companies' experience and project histories included such glaring omissions remains unclear. In earlier interviews, two committee members told CL that the people the committee contacted gave the companies good reviews and that the committee was basically looking at both firm's "vision for the corridor."

At deadline, CL was still waiting for CATS to provide copies of the information the committee reviewed before making the decision.

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