Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Let's Not be Taken for a Ride and Taint the Public Outreach Process

The Hillsborough County Transportation Policy Leadership Group (PLG) voted on August 12 to hire a transportation expert to perform public outreach. The Eye was at the August 12 PLG meeting. Not one commissioner or mayor asked how much this public outreach would cost and who would pay for it. Are the three city municipalities sharing the cost or is the county footing the entire bill?  Where's the money coming from to pay for this activity?

There was no discussion about what the outreach activities would consist of or what the expected work product is that would result. Those questions must not have been important. The PLG simply voted to hire a transportation expert (at least it's not a PR firm) to do public outreach and expected us to just "move along" and leave it all to county staffers.

But we can't just "move along". The Eye has found out that the County intends to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff to do the public outreach for the PLG. Parsons Brinkerhoff is also being awarded a contract to review and validate the cost estimates of the proposed transportation laundry list that is currently estimated to be between $12 and $15 Billion. That enables Parsons Brinckerhoff to work the estimates and then work the outreach which they could then benefit from - very cozy. And the county is awarding this work to Parsons Brinckerhoff without going through any bid or RFQ process.  

Who is Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB)?  They were previously known as PB Americas and have been most famously associated with Boston's "Big Dig".  PB and partner Bechtel were awarded the contract to supervise that project due to its enormous size (to begin with).  Cost overruns and delay issues turned into a fatality due to construction deficiencies when ceiling panels and debris fell on a car killing the passenger and injuring the driver of the car.  A settlement was made by PB and Bechtel of $458 million in 2008.

According to this 7News investigative report May 10, 2007 regarding the multibillion- dollar Regional Transportation District project design to bring light rail and commuter train service to nearly every corner of the Denver metro area:
Using public records, 7NEWS Investigators analyzed the $3.6 million dollars raised to support the FasTracks campaign. 
7NEWS analysis shows 28 companies that donated to FasTracks received contracts to do work. 
Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade's donation to the campaign was nearly $100,000 dollars. It's cashed RTD contract checks for more than $1.2 million dollars in the last two years.
Former RTD Board Chairman Jon Caldara told 7NEWS, "There is nothing illegal about what they've done, but there sure is something they should be ashamed of. It's not a contribution. It was an investment and it is paying off."
This April 16, 2013 article from Charlotte blog, Pundit House, titled Consultants, Consultants, Everywhere
...consultants advising the public sector have very little at risk, but they can have a huge influence on how decisions get made due to their “expertise” 
One company, Parsons Brinckerhoff, comes up repeatedly on local projects, but they are hardly alone. 
our local politicians keep going back to the same people even though the record is less than stellar
Parsons Brinckerhoff’s involvement in CharMeck transportation planning goes back to at least 1998. That year, the company was involved in creating the 2025 Integrated Transit/Land Use Plan for CharlotteMecklenburg.
When transit costs began soaring in Charlotte and a referendum was placed on the ballot to repeal the transit sales tax, PB contributed $30K to the "Save the Transit Tax" effort. The article connects the dots showing how PB connections in Charlotte frequently came into play to benefit them.

According to this 2003 Creative Loafing article titled Taken for a Ride (emphasis mine):
The main consultants for Mecklenburg's light rail system are big, powerful companies. They also have a notorious history of scandal, massive cost overruns, engineering snafus and deceiving the public. 
The two design, construction and engineering firms, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Parsons Transportation Corp., and their smaller business units are directly responsible for projects widely regarded as the biggest transit debacles in the nation's history. 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. 
Over time, the companies appear to have grown to be adept at two things: manipulating the boards that oversee them and negotiating ambiguous, open-ended contracts that make it difficult to fire them or hold them responsible for anything that goes wrong on the project. 
Perhaps the most powerful asset these companies have in their court is their political pull. Over time, the companies developed powerful federal political connections they continue to nurture every year by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to national politicians and the two political parties. Those connections in turn can be used to help municipalities looking to win money in the highly competitive battle for the federal transportation dollars without which most rail projects, including ours, won't happen.
Guess who's a sponsor (and has attendees) of an event coming up in Minneapolis called "Rail-volution - Building Liveable Communities with Transit"? Parsons-Brinckerhoff.

Let's look at PB closer to home in Tampa Bay. According to the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections website, PB has donated $50K to the pro rail PAC Friends of Greenlight, two contributions of $25K each on 6/6/2014 and 8/15/2014.
Parsons Brinckerhoff donates $25K to pro rail PAC
Friends of Greenlight on 8/15/2014 (click to enlarge)
Parsons Brinckerhoff donates $25K to pro rail PAC
Friends of Greenlight on 6/6/2014 (click to enlarge)
According to the Hillsborough County Supervisors of Elections website, PB gave $25K to the pro rail PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010 and recently (conveniently right after the August 12 PLG meeting) have given donations to county commission candidates.  Hmmm.......
PB donation to Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010 (click to enlarge)

Recently, on September 10th, PB hosted a " Vote YES on Greenlight Pinellas -- Reception and Informational Session" at their office on Westshore in Tampa that included Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, Alex Glenn, Duke Energy, Stuart Rogel, Tampa Bay Partnership and Friends of Greenlight. It's the same rail cartel cronies.

We get it - PB is a big rail supporter.

In June, pro rail TBARTA's Executive Director Bob Clifford resigned and took a position with Parsons Brinckerhoff. Clifford was at the August 12 Transportation Policy Leadership Group meeting. Did he know then that PB was going to be awarded the contract to do public outreach and more?

Does all this pass the smell test? NO! 

There are other qualified transportation experts who are not associated with the local crony pro rail cartel and who have not donated large sums of money to local rail efforts. There are transportation experts who could have performed the public outreach activity who are not  blatantly seeking to benefit from whatever plan results.

The county, who appears to be paying for it all, wants to give PB, a big rail supporter, the contract to do public outreach for projects they may benefit from. Is that why no one on the PLG questioned the cost of the outreach because they already knew that work was going to PB?  

Throughout the last year, we have seen some on the PLG, county staff and the MPO continue to try to pound a square peg down a round hole to push a high cost rail agenda Hillsborough already defeated, is not needed and we cannot afford. It appears that since the county is unable to get the rail answer some on the PLG want, they will now enable a third party, PB, who has donated large sums of money to local efforts for rail to get it.

Doling out the public outreach activity to PB through a no bid process appears to taint the public outreach effort. Perception does become reality. Why does it continue to appear the county administrator and county staffers are running the PLG? Where are our county commissioners? This crony nonsense needs to stop.

The county commissioners and the county administrator need to reconsider handing the public outreach work to PB. If the county is paying for this effort, the county commissioners should be more involved and at least request the county go through a clean bid process.

Hillsborough County does not want to be "taken for a ride" by Parsons Brinckerhoff.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. Same story on P-B in Dade and Broward. Let's work to defeat the tax.