Last month, less than a week after Irvine voters killed a county plan to run light rail through their city, county transportation officials okayed $9.6 million for "preliminary engineering" on a project now just 8 miles long. Most of that money will go to Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas, a U.S.-based multinational engineering firm that has worked on some of the world's biggest transportation jobs—and has an equally impressive history of mismanaged projects, blown budgets, and lubricating the small parts of local political machinery.
The Orange County Transportation Authority's relationship with Parsons goes back to May 2002, when the agency hired the firm to begin initial studies of the CenterLine light-rail system. But Parsons and its parent, Parsons Brinckerhoff, have a much longer résumé, an august history of engineering and design in the U.S. and around the globe. Parsons built New York City's first subway system, laid the first railway tracks in China, and has since completed projects on six continents. Now celebrating 118 years in the business, it's one of the oldest continuously operating engineering firms in the world.
When you're over a century old, you're bound to have made mistakes. The highest-profile Parsons fuckup is Boston's Big Dig. The joint venture between Parsons and Bechtel Civil Inc. to bury 7.5 miles of Boston's roadway underground was supposed to cost $2.6 billion when in it began in 1985. Still at least two years from the finish line, it's likely to hit a total cost of $14.6 billion. Fifteen local, state and federal investigations have explored everything from underestimated costs and managerial errors to failure to pay workers. One investigation found $2.2 billion in overruns that Parsons-Bechtel hid from the federal government. A March 2001 investigation by the Massachusetts Inspector General's office discovered that state transportation officials freaked when they saw the 1994 $14 billion final estimate and did the only rational thing they could: they directed Parsons and Bechtel to "undertake a cooperative effort to maintain the fiction of an 'on-time' and 'on-budget' $8 billion project."
In Los Angeles in 1994, PBQ&D dug itself another hole—literally. Parsons was responsible for engineering the Los Angeles Red Line, the center of LA's growing subway system beneath Hollywood Boulevard. An official inquiry blamed Parsons and another firm for sinkholes in the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard—up to 10 inches in some places. By the end of the project, LA's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) found that construction problems and lowball estimates had pushed the project $900 million over budget. In the course of its work on the Red Line, the Los Angeles Times has reported, Parsons Brinckerhoff contributed $35,952 to LA county officials. The biggest winner: Supervisor Deane Dana, a key project supporter.
Multibillion-dollar cost overruns in Boston? A $900 million overrun in LA? Our county's investment of $9.6 million must seem like small change to such a firm.