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Who Knew?

Light rail consultant evaluation process still unclear

The official answer appears to be that no one knows anything. After another week of digging, it's still unclear how the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) managed to hire transportation consultants responsible for two of the nation's biggest transit debacles -- not to mention numerous instances of scandal, fraud and corruption -- to oversee engineering and planning for critical parts of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's regional mass transit system.As reported in last week's CL cover story, "Taken For A Ride?", the two unrelated design, construction and engineering firms, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas and Parsons Transportation Corp., both have stark histories of deceiving the public and government officials about the true costs of transit projects and then benefiting directly from project cost overruns.

At the time the CL article ran last week, CATS had not yet answered our questions about who sat on the consultant evaluation committee that was supposed to review the consultants' experience and project histories before CATS and the city council decided to hire them.

Specifically, CL wanted to ask the committee members whether, at the time of making their evaluations, they had been aware of Parsons Brinckerhoff's well-publicized role as construction manager on Boston's Big Dig, an effort to bury 7.5 miles of Boston's central artery roadway underground. Big Dig was supposed to cost $2.6 million when the company began it; the price tag today is $14.6 billion and climbing, and the project is five years over its scheduled completion date. National newspapers have carried coverage of the Big Dig scandals the company was involved in, 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 available in national newspapers and on the web was information on 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.

Two of the evaluation committee's six members were transportation directors and one was a transportation planner, so the public could understandably assume they would have heard of the Boston Big Dig situation, not to mention looking into it further.

The committee's members included Huntersville Transportation Planner Bill Coxe, Charlotte Department of Transportation Director Jim Humphrey, CATS Director Ron Tober, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Martin Cramton, Matthews Town Manager Ralph Messera and Boyd Cauble with the Charlotte City Manager's Office.

Although they had several days to respond, Coxe, Cramton and Humphrey still hadn't returned our calls by press time. If we hear from them, or if we don't, we'll report that in next week's issue. In the meantime, we managed to catch Cauble and Messera on the first try.

"I wasn't aware of that stuff," said Cauble. "All the people we contacted gave the companies good reviews and they seemed to be doing projects on time and on budget."

Messera said the committee was basically looking at the consultants' "vision for the corridor.

"Their contracts were going to be with the City of Charlotte and I assumed they would be handling that kind of stuff," Messera said, referring to background checks into the companies' histories.

Despite several weeks of trying to schedule an interview with Tober through CATS public relations people, Tober continues to be too busy to talk to us personally. Instead, CATS Spokesperson Jean Leier described what Tober knew about the companies' past problems in an email.

"He was aware that there were problems on both the L.A. Red Line Project and on the Boston Central Artery Project but was not aware of the details of these problems, " Leier wrote.

Leier also said that Parsons Brinckerhoff did an "outstanding job" on projects for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority while Tober headed that transit system before he was hired to oversee CATS in August 1999.

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