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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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