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Consultants, Consultants, Everywhere…

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Consultants, consultants, everywhere… Is North Carolina transportation decision making beholden to big consulting?

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

Big Government, like Big Business, often uses consultants in large decision making and project delivery efforts.  Consultants bring expertise as well as additional manpower to the table.  They certainly can be useful.  However, there are two big differences between when the private sector brings in consultants and when government enlists their services.

The private sector is risking its own money on projects, and those hiring the consultants usually have a high degree of expertise in the subject area themselves.  Conversely, when government uses consultants public tax dollars are at risk, and the decision-makers, meaning the politicians, often have very limited experience in the subject matter being decisioned.

In the end, the 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”.  When things go wrong, it’s the citizens who are left holding the bag.  To know this is true, one has to look no further than the disastrous Mi-Connection decision by Mooresville and Davidson  to enter the local cable business – a decision strongly driven by the advise of consultants.

We all know how that turned out.

The promises of easy money and overflowing town coffers quickly turned into annual subsidies and higher taxes and fees.  In fact, the advise seemed so bad that questions were eventually asked about whether or not the consultants could be held accountable. See Did consultants cause Mi-Connection fairy tale?

However, the $90 million Mi-Connection purchase is dwarfed by other proposed local projects being heavily influenced by consultants.  Those are the massive projects being proposed for the Charlotte region’s transportation infrastructure including rail transit lines and the much covered topic of HOT lanes.  Combined, these projects total nearly $1 billion in proposed public spending.

In the realm of transportation projects, consultants from the large to the small can be found all across the spectrum of the decision making process – from assessments, to financial planning, to even the political process.  One company, Parsons Brinckerhoff, comes up repeatedly on local projects, but they are hardly alone.  And there is no reason to believe that if it wasn’t this company that some other would not take its place.  Remember, the politicians who make the decisions often do not have the required expertise to do so. They will seek out advice and there are countless consulting operations ready and willing to provide their services.

What follows is a brief outline of how one company, Parsons Brinckerhoff and its “alumni” have been involved in Charlotte’s transportation decision making.  This information is all available online.  It’s not secret.  Yet, for some reason 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. (See page 12)  This is the plan which would utilize the revenues from the 1/2- cent transit tax implemented by referendum in that same year.  In what would soon become painful irony, this plan actually won an award in 1999 at the Las Vegas convention of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. (See page 26)

Within a few years though, things began to unravel for the finances behind the plan.  This article originally published in the Charlotte Observer outlines how the costs of the plan began to explode.  See “Price tag of transit is soaring“.  One of the significant reasons for the increases was due to not including inflation in the original plan – the plan put together by Parsons Brinckerhoff.  One of the other reasons for the increased costs was the decision to significantly expanded bus service.  That decision according to this article was driven by then CATS chieftain, Ron Tober.

Eventually, the South Corridor opened in late 2007.   However, that was not before surviving a referendum to repeal the transit tax, an effort launched due to the project’s massive cost overruns.  The tax surviving the referendum was due in no small part to the efforts of Parsons Brinckerhoff.  The company was a significant donor to the Save the Transit Tax effort, contributing $30,000 to the cause. (See Follow the Money. Transit. – MeckDeck.com)  Also, one of the company’s alumni, a Mr Alan Wulkan, helped coordinate efforts to rally support for the tax through contacting DSS.  Mr Wulkan was working at the time through his own consulting firm, InfraConsult  (See Who is Alan Wulkan? -MeckDeck.com.)

Ultimately, the transit tax was “saved” in November 2007.  Plans for future spending stayed on track.  However, the pro-transit side was not without its casualties.  Ron Tober, the CATS boss at the time, announced his  “retirement” before the referendum.  Was he a scapegoat? Maybe. But, as you’ll see he lands on his feet.

Fast forward a few years.  The economic downturn hits.  Transit plans go into hibernation.

However, eventually things get back to “normal.”

Normal starts with the Red Line Commuter rail project.

The travails of this project have been covered extensively in these pages under “The Red Line Chronicle”.  One area that has not been covered yet involves the consultants which have been driving the project forward over the past couple of years.  Not surprisingly, once again Parsons Brinckerhoff connections frequently come into play.  It’s no secret that Mark Briggs, the project’s primary expert on public private partnerships (P3), currently works for PB.  What may be less well known is that all of the project’s consultants have done stints at PB.  Katherine Henderson of KKH Consulting as well as former consultant and eventual NCDOT Deputy Secretary for Transit, Paul Morris, also worked at PB.  Incidentally, all three also worked for the Raleigh-based real-estate investment group, Cherokee Investment Partners.

If you are interested in watching for more on the long-standing ties between PB and the Red Line, here is a video of PB’s Mark Briggs and Mayor John Woods from the Town of Davidson sitting down for an interview on the project with The Davidson Think Tank, at Davidson College.  It’s worth watching.

It’s safe to say, the Red Line Regional Rail project would not exist in its current form without the strong influence of consultants – all with links the same company.  The beauty of this for them is that as long as this project stays on life support, consultants will have more work to do.  If the project eventually stops altogether, they will have already collected their fees.

This brings us to the HOT lanes on I77, the second massive project underway in the region.  This has already been covered here and in most of the local professional media.  There’s no need to go into its details other than to say the experts on tolling at PB have been hard at work once again.  It is fare to say they truly are the experts.  This article outlines their experience in the field and includes a reference to the I77 project.  A quick google search shows the company has been involved for quite some time on the project.  Here’s a reference from 2010, and there are multiple references to Parsons Brinckerhoff speakers featured at local meetings on the project.  Many of these meetings have been conducted to push back on the efforts of the WidenI77.org citizen activist group that has been gaining traction recently in its opposition to HOT lanes.  Parsons Brinckerhoff consultant, David Ungemah, has been a frequent speaker at these meetings.

So, why is all of this important?  Why bring this up now?  As always, the answer is money.

Currently, the Charlotte Mecklenburg transportation plan is broke.  It’s busted.  It’s  “at least $3 billion short” according to one consultant (not Parsons Brinckerhoff by the way) and that’s just the mass transit plan.  That’s not even including roads.  That’s $3 billion short off the plan PB developed 15 years ago back in 1998.

To remedy this problem guess who has been brought in to help come up with a new plan?

Ron Tober, now with Parsons Brinckerhoff, that’s who – along with David Ungemah.

As mentioned earlier, Ron Tober, the former CATS executive who oversaw the build of the South Corridor and its huge cost overruns, landed on his feet.  In this article he laments that his departure from CATS in 2007 was driven by “vicious and mean-spirited” attacks.  Now, he returns as a member of the consulting firm which has benefited greatly from helping save the transit tax.  Even more telling may be something on Mr Tober’s Linked In profile.  His first foray into the private sector after leaving CATS appears to have been with InfraConsult.  The same consultants that helped “save” the transit tax in 2007 by contacting Mecklenburg DSS to figure out how to convince the elderly to vote for the tax.

Was Mr Tober a scapegoat in 2007?  Maybe.  But it seems more like a case of like minded people taking care of their own.

Now, Mr Tober is back as part of a funding work group charged with coming up with a plan to raise more money for Charlotte transit plans.  See this article from the Charlotte Business Journal for the details.

However, he is not alone.  As mentioned PB’s David Ungemah is also helping beat the bushes for more transportation funding.  He was a scheduled speaker at last Friday’s Charlotte Chamber 2013 Transportation Summit speaking on the topic of “Innovation Meets Revenue Generation”.

So, here we have the same company which developed Charlotte’s mass transit plan 15 years ago – a plan that was woefully optimistic – coming back to help solve the financing problem.  One of those people is someone who left after overseeing a project with massive cost overruns.  The idea never seems to occur to anyone with any real authority, elected or otherwise, that the plan may just be a bad plan.  And finally, the same consultants who put together this plan for mass transit are now being heavily involved in promoting an “innovative” solution to our road congestion problems.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The question has to be asked.  Are we insane?

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