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Thursday, February 04, 2010

New HRT chief aims to shore up management practices

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After a few days on the job, new Hampton Roads, Va., Transit leader Philip Shucet said he's working to correct poor project management practices on Norfolk's beleaguered light-rail construction and eliminate a culture of fear that has gripped the agency, The Virginian-Pilot reports. Both have contributed to the spiraling cost overruns and schedule delays on the light-rail project that has cast a pall over the transit agency.

Shucet assumed the role of HRT president and CEO on Feb. 1, replacing embattled Michael Townes, who was pressured to step down amid criticisms of poor management and communication on the light-rail project. The light-rail budget has climbed 47 percent to an estimated $340 million and construction is more than a year behind schedule. HRT board members say the budget woes were kept from them by HRT staff.

Shucet said HRT staff members are refining numbers with the help of consultant AECOM and will deliver a final cost to complete construction in the next two and a half weeks. He also said the system likely won't be ready for passengers until next summer.

"Changing numbers and not communicating well is all driven by fear," Shucet said. "We have to let people know that the truth is nothing to be afraid of."

Shucet said every organization has a corporate culture and HRT's culture "hasn't lent itself to openness."

"We cannot be afraid, I don't mean fear in the sense of reprisal or of being fired, but fear in the sense of dealing honestly with the truth," he said.

HRT board members said last week they were looking to restore credibility in the agency when they hired Shucet, former Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner who on four occasions has been hired to help fix troubled agencies and companies.

Shucet said he's also working on establishing better project management.

"I haven't seen the best project management practices," he said. "I'm not just speaking for HRT there. I'm referring to everyone involved in the management of it."

He specifically mentioned consultants who were paid to help manage the project.

"It's a big endeavor for an agency that hasn't tackled such an endeavor before, so I'm not necessarily throwing rocks at our own folks," Shucet said.

Shucet said that main contractor Skanska now has a guaranteed contract with financial incentives for finishing early and penalties for coming in late. He said the contractor has a "no excuses deadline" for finishing its part of the work by July 17.

As for committing to a bottom line for the project, Shucet said he and his staff are working on it. They're using AECOM's recently completed report on costs and their own expertise to arrive at a number "we can stamp on our forehead."

He declined to release the AECOM report because it's considered a working document.

"We must prepare what will be the cost-to-complete for the Tide and we must own it like we own the clothes on our back," Shucet said. "I have a high degree of confidence that, absent something catastrophic that is not known to anyone today, once we have that number we won't see any more significant increases."

Shucet said he's eager to get that number so "people won't be focused on the drama and intrigue of the number anymore. We'll all be focused on building the Tide."

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