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Big Dig firm to help run T project

Board initially leery of hiring company; will aid MBTA on locomotive deal

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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Parsons Brinckerhoff is a global firm with 14,000 employees and what it terms “a rich and proud’’ 126-year history, but in Boston it is best known for its role overseeing the Big Dig.

The megaproject was beset by delays, difficulties, and cost overruns, and marred by a 2006 ceiling collapse that killed a Jamaica Plain woman. Since then, the firm has been a magnet for criticism, especially as it bid for public contracts, even though the financial settlement it agreed to with the state, to avoid criminal prosecution over the Big Dig, did not preclude it from bidding on future projects.

Yesterday, the MBTA agreed to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff as a subcontractor on an $8.7 million deal to help the state manage its $115 million purchase of 20 new commuter rail locomotives, to be built in Idaho. Some on the MBTA’s board of directors seemed initially hesitant, but state Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan convinced them that it was time to move on.

“PB Americas is one of the great engineering companies in the United States,’’ he said. “It has a long history of excellence. I know that mistakes were made on the Artery/Tunnel project, and people paid for those mistakes, and it resulted in an extreme, unfortunate incident on Interstate 90. But I think that PB has, not just in Massachusetts but throughout the nation and indeed the world, proven its capabilities time and time again.’’

Board member Ferdinand Alvaro Jr. expressed reservations.

“I fully understand that they have every right, every legal right, to be in this process,’’ said Alvaro, a corporate lawyer, asking Mullan if he was “absolutely convinced that PB Americas is a company which meets the kind of ethical standards of companies that we ought to do business with.’’

Mullan answered, “Absolutely, 100 percent.’’

Alvaro said he was reassured by Mullan’s statement and by a packet of materials about Parsons Brinckerhoff’s “corporate citizenship.’’

“I think I have come to a point where I think that past sins have been atoned for,’’ Alvaro said.

The MBTA’s five board members then unanimously voted to award an engineering services contract to the firm STV Inc. The contract, to support the MBTA as it purchases new locomotives from Idaho’s MotivePower Inc., anticipates that STV will work with three subcontractors, including PB, which would handle 16 percent of the work.

MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey said PB has the expertise to help the T avoid “buying lemons’’ as it purchases the new locomotives.

The new contract comes more than three years after the January 2008 settlement that Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff — the companies that had become partners to oversee design and construction of the Central Artery/Tunnel project, known as the Big Dig — reached with state and federal prosecutors. In the process, they agreed to pay a combined $400 million to the state, participate in a business ethics and corporate compliance program, and submit to state review. They also settled separately with the family of Milena Del Valle, the victim in the tunnel collapse.

Later that year, the Massachusetts Port Authority drew much criticism after selecting Parsons Brinckerhoff to design and manage construction of a parking complex at Logan Airport. State Senator Mark C. Montigny, Democrat of New Bedford, called it doing “business with the devil’’ and said, “There is absolutely no excuse to do business with the major culprits with this disaster.’’

Governor Deval Patrick also expressed concern about the state doing business with the firm. Last fall, Patrick’s two opponents in his reelection bid criticized him after it was discovered that Parsons Brinckerhoff had quietly worked since 2007 as a subcontractor on the preliminary design of the MBTA’s Green Line extension project.

The state immediately let that deal lapse, though the board at the time said its concerns had more to do with the contract having grown considerably without being rebid.

Yesterday, MBTA board member Andrew Whittle, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at MIT, called Parsons Brinckerhoff “a fine engineering company’’ and said that he hoped that “we won’t have to revisit this conversation’’ the next time the firm’s name comes up.

Afterward, Mullan called approval of the contract a “forward looking’’ move.

“I think it’s important that we move forward,’’ he said. “I also believe in the sanctity of a contract. We signed a [settlement] contract with this organization. We did not debar them.

“We made a choice that they adhere to this rigorous compliance program, which included a review of their corporate practices, their business ethics, and that they be eligible to continue to work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,’’ Mullan said.

“And we’re living up to our end of the bargain, as they have demonstrated that they’re living up to their end.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story said that the five-member MBTA board of directors voted unanimously to approve an engineering-services contract that includes Parsons Brinckerhoff as a subcontractor. The board voted 4-0 with one member, Elizabeth Levin, recused for past professional association.