It took over a decade, but people across the country are finally beginning to figure out how the light rail scam works.
Consultants who stand to profit from building rail lines quote ridiculously low cost estimates, then later the cost triples, quadruples or worse. Politicians feign shock and the companies laugh all the way to the bank.
Parsons Transportation Group, the same company that designed our rail line, tried this scam most recently in Southern Nevada, but this time, it didn't go so well.
In December, Parsons attempted to convince taxpayers that a 33-mile line that would connect Henderson and North Las Vegas would cost a mere $713 million, or $22 million a mile. That didn't jibe with what citizens were reading on the Web, and they questioned the costs. Rather than act as a mindless cheerleader for rail, like the media in most cities, the Las Vegas Review-Journal took a good look at the estimate, calling it "absurdly low" when compared to actual costs in other cities -- which run as high as $80 million a mile.
Parsons quickly revised its projections upward by $400 million in response and was eventually forced to admit that with inflation factored in -- these consultants often "forget" to factor in inflation -- the real cost would be between $2 billion and $3 billion. (Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, an unrelated company that did the estimates for our mass transit project, conveniently "forgot" to figure in inflation, too.)
Within a month, the Vegas light rail plan was dead.
Charlotte wasn't so lucky. We're one of the cities that deliberately closed its eyes and bought the scam. In the late 1990s, consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff claimed that we too could have rail for a mere $29 million a mile, and that the South Boulevard rail line would come in around $230 million. Some city council members who doubted those numbers raised $5,000 and brought in their own consultant, Wendell Cox.
Using costs of other lines across the country for comparison, Cox predicted our rail line would cost over $400 million and have far lower ridership and much higher subsidization costs than predicted. The powers that be treated Cox like a mental defective and laughed him out of city hall. Cox and those who hired him were small-minded and lacked vision. As it turns out, Cox was almost dead on. It now looks like his estimates were actually a little low.
In 2003, Creative Loafing reported that the last time Parsons Transportation and Parsons Brinckerhoff worked on a large-scale project together, they were responsible for an 80-foot sinkhole along Hollywood Boulevard, thousands of lawsuits totaling over $1 billion, and a trail of fraud and corruption so long that even the FBI couldn't untangle it. Parsons Brinckerhoff, the firm that told voters in 1998 that our mass transit plan would cost about a billion dollars -- it is now forecast to cost over $6 billion and counting -- is the same firm that conspired with Massachusetts officials and the Federal Highway Administration to hide the true $14 billion cost of Boston's Big Dig from the public, bond investors and Wall Street.
This alarmed us here at CL, and three years ago, we demanded to know why these firms were hired to do work here and how we'd keep them from robbing us blind. Didn't this stuff turn up in the background check of these companies? And shouldn't we double check their cost estimates?
Through a spokesperson, Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Ron Tober told CL at the time that he was aware that there were problems on both the L.A. Red Line Project and on the Big Dig, but claimed that he was not aware of the details of those problems.
Other city and town officials who sat on the committee that vetted the companies told us they looked at the companies' "vision for the future," not their past histories.
And three years ago, after we ran all of this by him, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory told CL he would demand answers. But weeks later, McCrory laughed at CL for asking questions about the competence of our rail contractors in an interview with WBT radio's Keith Larson. Needless to say, the mayor never delivered those "answers" he promised us.
Now the nine-mile South Boulevard light rail line, which was supposed to cost $230 million, is at $427 million and costs are forecasted to go higher, though how much higher nobody knows because the city is still trying to untangle the mess. It appears that Parsons Transportation Group has fraudulently billed the city, and expensive new engineering snafus are turning up on a daily basis.
Now McCrory is outraged and he wants answers. He's demanding that someone bring him a damn report, NOW. Somebody better explain how this could have possibly happened, he fumed for the cameras last week.
For over five years, we tried, Mr. Mayor, and you mocked us. Cox and your fellow city council members tried, and you wouldn't listen.
But might we make a suggestion? Forget that report and try Google. It worked just fine for the people of Southern Nevada.
The future of rail here is pretty predictable, based on what's happened elsewhere. After massive cost overruns, the line will be completed only to open to ridership that's significantly less than what was originally forecast. The cost of subsidizing the line, meanwhile, will be far higher than forecast. The line will then suck so much money out of the system that bus service or other planned corridors will have to be cut.
It's a pattern that Professor Bent Flyvbjerg at Denmark's University of Aarlborg has made a career documenting. Flyvbjerg has a word for the bureaucratic and engineering phenomenon that has led to these problems across the globe: "lying."