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Rail contract doesn’t pass the smell test

On April 19, my colleagues and I on the state Controlling Board considered a controversial request from the Ohio Department of Transportation to approve a contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a New York-based construction management company, for $25 million to conduct an environmental and engineering study in support of the Governor’s proposed 3-C rail line linking Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton.

The Strickland Administration has said that this preliminary work will help to provide more detailed answers about ridership, cost and other outstanding questions regarding passenger train service.

While I am open to exploring transportation alternatives for Ohio, including rail, I voted no for ODOT’s request, because I believe this contract, and the answers that agency officials provided to basic questions about it, do not pass the smell test.

All that ODOT gave the Controlling Board prior to the meeting was a two-page document with generalities about the Parsons Brinckerhoff agreement. Then, when I asked the agency if they could give more specifics about the project, the ODOT Deputy Director responded that “the scope of work will be completed after Controlling Board approval.” How does ODOT know that the contract needs to be for $25 million if they haven’t finalized the scope of work?

Senate Republicans asked ODOT to provide other important information about the Parsons Brinckerhoff bid, but it wasn’t delivered until the Friday after the Controlling Board vote.

These documents, however, were dated from December 2009. Why did it take ODOT so long to honor our request if they have had the information available since late last year?

In addition, the two-page document provided by ODOT says the contract will include money for a media and public outreach campaign.

I asked agency officials how much of this money would be used to promote ODOT’s agenda. They said they didn’t know.

There are also serious concerns about Parsons Brinckerhoff’s honesty and impartiality. The company was sued in 2004 by the state of Massachusetts for intentionally underestimating the cost of the infamous Big Dig in Boston to keep the road construction project moving forward.

According to a March 2004 article in the Boston Globe, the lawsuit stated that “The defendants utilized their superior knowledge and expertise to conceal project cost overruns in order to continue, for their own improper benefit and by improper means, the highly lucrative contracts with the Commonwealth (of Massachusetts).” ODOT officials said they were aware of the suit, but they were not concerned.

Parsons Brinckerhoff is also one of the corporate sponsors of Linking Ohio, the public relations campaign designed to build support for the 3-C rail project.

This is significant because many believe that the price of building and operating the 3-C corridor has been underestimated by supporters and could end up costing billions of dollars more than projected at a time when the state does not have any extra money.

Another key reason for my “no” vote was that if Ohio takes $25 million from the federal government to pay for the Parsons Brinckerhoff contract, we could be required to pay it back if the state decides not to move forward with the 3-C project.

The money would be taken out of the $400 million in federal stimulus dollars that Ohio was awarded to build passenger rail and is akin to accepting a 0 percent loan for a period of time with a payoff that you cannot afford.

Despite these concerns, the Strickland Administration decided to push forward with its request. It was approved by the Controlling Board 4-3 on a party line vote. Sen. David Goodman (R-New Albany) and State Rep. Jay Hottinger (R-Newark) joined me in voting no.

Some have characterized those who opposed ODOT’s request as being politically-motivated. If not blindly approving a contract that lacks critical details and could put Ohio taxpayers on the hook for spending millions of dollars is political, then I am okay with taking that position.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.