NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) - On Thursday we reported a 10 on Your Side investigation uncovering the cost every single person in Hampton Roads will pay for "The Tide" Light Rail Project.
The Tide's not running. It's months behind schedule, and costing you $338 million and counting. That means if two-thirds of Hampton Roads rides the train just one time in 2011, that one trip will cost each person $338. That's the amount in taxes you paid for the Tide.
WAVY.com spoke with Michael Townes, the man who was in charge of The Tide and let it go off the rails. His job was to bring trains to Hampton Roads within budget. For the first time since leaving HRT, Townes agreed to connect the dots on what has become a colossal mess.
10 On Your Side didn't stop there. We also dug through an extensive audit to piece together the details that everyone else wants to sweep under the rug. What we found was finger pointing - people protecting themselves instead of protecting taxpayer dollars.
"Can you turn that off for a minute. The camera." Tense, and uncomfortable. We relentlessly put Michael Townes on the hot seat. "I have not done anything criminal. I have done my best to navigate through a complicated situation." Complicated and clouded. Townes was the CEO and President of HRT in charge of the Light Rail Project until he resigned in disgrace.
He's accused of Light Rail mismanagement with cost overruns. Then, with busted budgets, an independent State Audit found Townes and other HRT officials failed to tell the truth on how bad it really was. "Do you understand the full scope of what happened under your watch?" We asked Townes who responded, "I do understand what happened under my watch. I don't fully understand how we got into this mess." That is what people will find troubling; Townes doesn't fully understand.
To understand how $338 million was spent on the Tide, with not much accountability, you have to learn who the players are. Townes supervised John Coard and Jayne Whitney. When these three started going over budget, losing control, they got buried, and so did information taxpayers needed to know. Coard would leave HRT knowing how bad it would become. 10 on Your Side discovered an omniscient e-mail Coard wrote to Jayne Whitney on June 25, 2008. Coard wrote to Whitney, "MY OBSERVATION... I told you years ago that traditionally, large projects such as this will run into political problems toward the end that usually result in a high-level person being dismissed." Coard continued his predictions to Whitney: "So when the going gets really tough regarding busted budget, busted schedule, media ridicule, and/or public frustration; and those in the spotlight demand that heads must roll, who will take the sword?"
Townes responded to our comment that he must have known someone would come after him, "Yes I knew someone would eventually, as perhaps they should have, pointing the finger at me as the person in charge and the most accountable." Townes took the sword and resigned with a hefty severance package. However, by now the light rail budget was shot. Townes couldn't say 'no' to the city, and had lost control of the project. We asked Townes, "Did Stanley Stein know?" Townes responded, "Stanley Stein knew everything that I knew." Stein responded, "That would not be a correct statement."
But Norfolk's Assistant City Manager Stanley Stein knew plenty and was calling a lot of the shots on behalf of Norfolk according to the State Audit, especially when he wrote in September 2007 to Jayne Whitney: a full year before Chord's foreshadowing e-mail: "HRT will always say to us that it is not within the budget. This however is a City of Norfolk project...the City will be briefed and have final say as to if we want to do more or not."
We said to Stein, "The things you asked for jacked up the cost of light rail." Stein admitted, "Yes." We continued, "So when we are talking about cost overruns the City of Norfolk's responsible for that too, yes?" Stein said, "No doubt about it." Townes told us, "They were definitely making improvements to light rail on light rail dollars, and it was not my place to tell them they could not." Critics would argue it was Townes' place and he failed to do so.
Stein puts Norfolk's share of the budget mess at $6.46 million. Those improvements included upgrades to the train stations. Norfolk didn't want stations that look old and simple, but they wanted ones that looked modern with white columns. Stein wants to set the record straight from his standpoint, "Our cost is a far cry from $100 million dollars." We reminded Stein Norfolk State made a lot of demands too. "Oh, it adds up," Stein acknowledged.
Norfolk and HRT allowed Norfolk State University to make demands, because they owned some of the land. What NSU did was jack up the price of light rail by an estimated $10 million. NSU didn't want a station on the University side of Brambleton Avenue, but across the street away from the campus. That project change cost more