HRT’s Missing Money: Board’s Fault, Not Townes’s

8 01 2010

There has been much talk recently about the performance of HRT President & CEO Michael Townes. While I do think that he should share responsibility for the Tide-related cost overruns, I do not believe that he should be held responsible for not informing the board about the $80,000 allegedly stolen from the fare boxes over a six-month period in 2009. The missing money was uncovered during an independent audit of HRT. This audit was paid for and authorized by the board. In other words, the auditors worked for the board, not for Mr. Townes. If the auditors failed to inform the board of the missing money during their presentation, it is the fault of the auditor for failing to make a complete report and it is the failure of the board to make sure that the auditor gave a complete report. Mr. Townes does not fit into that equation. After Mr. Townes was made aware and an investigation was complete, the responsible employees were terminated. No charges were filed because the HRT lawyer did not think that there was sufficient evidence. No civil suit was filed because the associated costs outweighed the benefits. This means that HRT, after learning of the issue, fixed the problem and decided not to waste more money than they would have recovered (i.e. responsibility).

I believe that no matter what, you should always give credit where credit is due. The cities of Hampton Roads should change their board representation if they have failed to properly oversee HRT. They want to fire Mr. Townes because he failed to give timely notification of cost overruns. Now, fire the board for failing to take responsibility for their share of the problems. The board is not just there for sh*ts and giggles. They have a purpose. They have a duty to the residents of their respective cities to make sure that money is spent wisely.


HRT Mismanagement – A Day Late, A Dollar Short

26 12 2009

I didn’t actually think that I would be writing an article such as this. While I assumed that HRT was just as mismanaged as every other government-run organization in the region, state, or country, I also assumed that HRT would at least step up their game for this project. The HRT President and CEO, Michael Townes is a nice guy with good ideas. Unfortunately, whether his direct fault or not, he is the President and CEO, therefore making him ultimately responsible for the inner workings of HRT. This problem is deeper than Mr. Townes. If we ever want to have a strong, regional transit company, we need to get to the root of the problem. In my opinion, the root of this particular issue stems from poor project management. That is not Mr. Townes’s direct responsibility. The Tide has a project manager and a third-party consultant whose stated job is project management. All of this management should be held immediately accountable. First off, the consulting company is over budget. How in the world can we allow a company tasked with keeping costs under control¬† to go over budget? I consider that a failure. According to a story by WVEC, “Factors cited by HRT include unexpected conditions in the field, requests for design changes, underground utility relocation, consultant issues, and management problems.” I will go with the first three. Sh*t happens. but the final two are unacceptable. If HRT themselves can point out that consultant issues and management problems are the cause for part of our problems, why are these people still employed. It is my personal belief that when a person is hired for a job, they are to do that job. If they fail to do that job, they should be terminated. This applies to head executives as well as 7-Eleven employees. You are paid to do a job. Your employment agreement is a contract between you and your employer. A breach of contract should result in termination unless some rare circumstance exists. Fire the consultants and sue for the money back. As far as I am concerned, if your job is to keep an eye on the money and you instead rob us blind, you should be held accountable. Additionally, there are others that should be docked pay at a minimum. Take the Senior Vice President for Development, Jayne Whitney. Her HRT bio states that she is “currently responsible for the planning, engineering, design and construction and funding of major capital projects in the organization, including New Starts projects such as the Norfolk Light Rail project.” (By the way, Ms. Whitney, if you ever read this, could you please remind your webmaster that stating that you “began [your] professional career with VDOT and performed highway planning and public transportation planning,” just screams inept to this part of the state?)¬† Or look at Jim Price, Vice President of Rail Operations. What does he do right now? There are no “rail operations.” This means that either he sits on his hind parts all day (and we should lay him off) or he is actively involved in the management of this project (and should be held accountable).

Hampton Roads needs this to succeed. We cannot continue to allow waste and incompetence to drive our regional organizations. Bone fide mistakes do happen. I understand that.Especially when you work Downtown, you never know what is lurking underground. When you work in an office, however, and are tasked to not drop the ball, you should either do it or get out. SPSA, HRT, VDOT, each individual city council, the CTB, the General Assembly, etc. all seem to just maintain the status quo. In Hampton Roads this appears to be, “screw the taxpayers.” Light rail can and will work here. So will HRT. As citizens, however, we need to strongly voice our opinion that we want competent staff members before we want expensive ones with lofty resumes.

Light Rail in Chesapeake?

3 12 2009

On November 24th, the City of Chesapeake officially and unanimously voted to push for a light rail study for their inclusion into regional light rail plans. This is a major and definitive move for Chesapeake, showing that they support a regional mass transportation system. A Greenbrier line connecting to Norfolk Naval Station would be a tremendous asset to a fledgling light rail system such as ours. A Chesapeake line would also set the stage for a line through Portsmouth and out to Suffolk. A system with a strong East-West corridor (Downtown Norfolk-Oceanfront) and a North-South corridor (Norfolk Naval Station-Greenbrier) would increase ridership and overall importance as well as add fuel to an extension to the Peninsula, thus giving us a truly regional system. Good job Chesapeake. If Virginia Beach does, for some unseen reason, back out yet again from progress, Chesapeake will be in a position to surpass Virginia Beach as the largest city in Virginia.

Why Fight Light Rail?

10 10 2009

I ask again, why fight light rail? Especially if you are part of the Virginia Beach Taxpayers’ Alliance. For a group that doesn’t want to pay more taxes, they sure are fighting strong against something that would potentially bring increased revenue without increased taxes. In fact, Virginia Beach is already benefiting from light rail. If you hadn’t heard, they are planning a high density development on their side of Newtown Road and plan on promoting its position near the light rail.

Norfolk is only spending less than $100 million on the Tide. That is one of the lowest amounts in the country for a new light rail start up. Virginia Beach could have been in on it, but people like the VBTA fought the deal. Light Rail is coming to Virginia Beach. The questions are only when and how much will the VBTA cost the taxpayers in inflation? Since construction began, Norfolk has see construction begin on the Fort Norfolk development, the Belmont at Freemason, Wachovia Center, and the Residence Inn. Not bad for a recession. In contrast, how many are planned for Town Center? I couldn’t find but maybe one. They have another phase that’s supposed to start soon. It will likely take a large infusion of taxpayer dollars, which may not exist with their new found budget shortfall. Good luck with that.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. As energy prices rise, people are going to be looking to move closer to their jobs. The suburban model of growth (i.e. VA Beach) cannot continue to pay for 12 lane highways and hour long daily commutes. The VBTA continually asserts that Light Rail is a waste of money that cannot pay for itself. What is the alternative? The Southeastern Parkway? A highway that costs more per mile than Light Rail and shaves less than a minute off your commute? When Light Rail gets old, you but a new car for $7 million. Virginia Beach is set to spend $45 million this fiscal year just for widening and maintaining its current roadways. How is that more fiscally responsible? Would it not stand to reason that expanding mass transit and decreasing the reliance on personal vehicles would save the city $ million per year?

Despite their outward appearance, the VBTA is not against wasteful city spending, but rather against progress in general, unless of course it directly benefits their members. Their website gives no membership numbers, but I would venture to guess that they have nowhere near the numbers to support their name. They are not representative of the taxpayers of Virginia Beach. Their website has not been updated in nearly 2 years. They have no mission statement. Their last posted issue is from June of 2007.

If you live in Virginia Beach and somebody comes up to you asking to sign a petition to support a referendum, tell them, “No. I elected my representatives to be leaders. I support progress and responsible growth. I support Light Rail.”