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Is the State Spending Wisely on Multiple Studies of Future Transportation Projects?

Gregory Hladky

May 04, 2011

In 2002, state transportation officials hired a consultant called Wilbur Smith Associates to study the possibility of creating commuter rail service between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield. The cost of the study was pegged at $940,000.

Nearly a decade later, that consultant is still working on the revised and expanded rail project. The cost of the state's contract with Wilbur Smith has mushroomed by 585 percent to about $5.5 million. Officials say this consulting job should be wrapped up in another two years.

None of the added work was subject to competitive bidding. Some of it even involved evaluation of proposed rail improvements in Vermont and Massachusetts.

“Nice work if you can get it,” is the judgment of state Sen. Andrew Roraback, the top Republican on the legislature's Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

State Department of Transportation officials insist they followed all the rules and regulations, that the awarding of all that extra work was perfectly proper and sensible, initially because Wilbur Smith was the firm most familiar with the project, and later because Connecticut wanted to cash in on some of the billions of dollars in federal aid that President Obama made available.

“If we wanted to be players in the high-speed rail program, we had to move and move fast,” says DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. “We don't make these decisions on our own. … This is what the law dictates, so we follow it.”

So far, Connecticut has pulled in $161 million in federal aid for the New Haven-to-Springfield rail proposal, which is expected to have an estimated $547 million in “preliminary costs.” If all goes smoothly, state officials say, improved train service could be up and chugging by 2016.

The federal high-speed rail money DOT was hungering for became available in 2009 — seven years after Wilbur Smith first began working on this project. Another DOT-Wilbur Smith study, this one of the I-84 and Route 8 interchange in Waterbury, lasted almost seven years at a cost of $1.16 million, a tab state officials say has the potential to go even higher.

Speed isn't something people associate with Connecticut's bureaucratic beast of a transportation agency. Critics have complained for years about the DOT's lumbering pace and glacial approach to accomplishing almost anything. Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell once got so frustrated she proposed blowing the whole damned department into pieces.

And the seemingly endless studies and evaluations of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project isn't an isolated phenomenon. Nursick says his agency often runs into situations beyond its control, including changes in state or federal policy and shortages of project funding.

URS Corporation AES, for example, was hired in 2002 to do a study of the Danbury Branch Line. So far, that contract has cost more than $3.5 million and the latest estimated completion target is “winter 2011.” Nursick says the first $1.4 million of the contract was for a “needs and feasibility study” and that a second environmental review, costing $2.1 million, was added in 2006. He explains the DOT routinely assigns these types of secondary studies to the firm that did the initial work.

Close, Jensen & Miller got a DOT contract in August 2008 to do an environmental impact statement of plans to widen Interstate 84 between the New York line and Waterbury. So far, that contract is worth nearly $3.7 million and DOT records show no estimated end date because state officials say there is no money available to actually do the widening project.

The name of this particular consultant has surfaced in connection with two other controversial DOT undertakings.

An independent state auditor found significant design errors in plans drawn up by Close, Jensen & Miller for widening I-84 in Cheshire and Waterbury. That project collapsed into a scandal involving drains that led nowhere, falling lamp posts, a bankrupt contractor, the firing of an inspection firm (the Maguire Group of New Britain), and criminal and civil investigations. Even before the state began to correct some of the hideous construction flaws, this baby had racked up cost overruns of $13.4 million.

Close, Jensen & Miller was also involved in planning another big DOT project along I-95 in East Haven, where design flaws allegedly contributed to $9.5 million in cost overruns. The president of the consulting firm, John Miller, who spent a decade as one of Connecticut's representatives on the Republican National Committee, rejected allegations about flawed design work and denied that political influence played any role in his company's getting state work.

The Maguire Group (the one that was supposed to be inspecting that debacle on I-84) was also the consultant for a long-running, on-again-off-again study of the environmental impact of completing the Route 11 project in southeastern Connecticut. As of 2007, the tab for that sucker had reached $4.9 million, but it may not be done yet because Gov. Dannel Malloy is now talking about finally finishing that highway..

Following the earlier scandal, the Maguire Group was sold and now has new directors, according to state officials. The DOT has decided to keep it on its list of approved consultants.

Simone Cristofori, director of DOT consultant selection, says Wilbur Smith and the other consultants for these studies were all chosen as a result of her unit's annual “pre-qualification” of firms for different types of work. Once a consultant has been deemed qualified for a particular category, that firm goes on a list.

When a project like the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line study comes up, Cristofori says all pre-qualified consultants in the appropriate category are contacted. Those who want the job are reviewed and top contenders are called in for interviews and a selection is made as called for by state and federal law, according to Cristofori. After a consultant is picked, the DOT then negotiates a “fair and reasonable” contract.

Apparently, nothing in state or federal law prevents the DOT from repeatedly expanding and extending these kinds of consulting deals.

Tom Maziarz, head of the DOT's policy and planning division, explains that the original $940,000 Wilbur Smith contract was expanded by $1.5 million in 2008 to have the firm do an environmental evaluation of the commuter rail concept. Another $1 million was added in 2009 and it was upped again last year by a cool $2 million last year because the state needed a lot more work done in a hurry if it wanted to grab a chunk of the high-speed rail money Obama was handing out.

“We had to show we were ready to go,” Maziarz says.

The added work (paid for by Connecticut taxpayers) for Wilbur Smith included doing some “systems level, program level assessments” of the regional proposals for high-speed rail in Massachusetts from and Vermont. The out-of-state work was necessary, Maziarz says, because Connecticut's application for the high-speed rail funding was linked to regional rail plans for other parts of New England.

Expanding the Wilbur Smith contract made sense, DOT officials argue, because that firm was intimately familiar with the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor from its previous studying. “They were the best positioned,” Maziarz explains.

Now, Wilbur Smith has been commissioned to do some “preliminary design work” for the project, which explains part of that $5.5 million total tab. Four other consultants are coming on board to design new stations, additional tracks and signals, and revamped bridges and other structures. “I'm not sure we have an amount set for that yet,” Maziarz says of the additional design work.

The DOT's critics say commissioning a study is a classic dodge for government officials who don't want to put their asses on the line.

“We in the legislature are guilty of this as well,” Roraback says. “We know that when we don't want to make a decision, the easiest way out is to ‘study' something. And the DOT can ‘study' with the best of them, and put off making decisions.”

One former state official, who asked not to be identified, believes the DOT's desire to do so many studies of the New Haven-Springfield project resulted in part from the agency's old-line antipathy toward mass transit.

“If there's one area of state government that gets a grade of ‘needs improvement,' it's [lack of] accountability,” Roraback argues. “And if there's one state agency that has the greatest need in the area of accountability, it's the DOT.”

“An open-ended consulting contract invites excess,” he adds. “Consultants are given what amounts to a blank check. … It's just a bad system.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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