Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Silver Spring Transit Center as an example of the perils of privatization

I'm writing an analysis of a project right now, and a point I make is that the first organization can't expect the simultaneous planning efforts of the two other major players to necessarily represent the first organization's interests at the expense of their own.

There has been a lot written about the debacle of the Silver Spring Transit Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, so much that I am not going to discuss it in depth here.

The station is designed to be intermodal, and to provide a structure (but modeled more after a parking structure than a grand railroad station) to provide bus service connections to the adjacent subway station, along with improved rail, bus, and inter-city bus connections (Greyhound, etc.) with a connection to the Metropolitan Branch Trail-Capital Crescent Trail for walking and biking (but no allied bike station on-site).

Problems with the station's construction (detailed in this Post article "Silver Spring Transit Center's inspectors ran poor concrete tests, report says") ended up being the result of design failures that went undetected, improper construction, and failures in the inspection and certification process--at least four parties, Parsons Brinkerhoff, the architect for the project, Foulger-Pratt, the construction manager, the concrete provider, and Robert Balter Company, the inspection firm, are all likely to end up paying out big dollars for the failures, even if Foulger-Pratt is trying to declaim their responsibilities for the debacle ("Foulger-Pratt 'disturbed' by county behavior" and "Contractor on troubled transit center blames Montgomery County officials" from the Post).

While it's typical for local governments to contract out the design and construction of buildings and structures, this doesn't usually extend to the inspection of a building, although it's not out of the question, if the structure is not one that is typically constructed in a community.

For all the talk about the benefits of capitalism, be it market democracy, neoliberalism ("March of the neoiberals" from the Guardian), or "democratic capitalism" ("The Empirical Kids" from the New York Times) at the end of the day, it's a bad idea to expect the market and the service providers to be focused on representing the client's interest at the expense of their own interest.

This is a good example of why relying on "competition" and "the market" isn't always a good strategy (see "Montgomery approves $7.5 million more for transit center" from the Post).

And why giving contracts to local firms like Foulger-Pratt, who are unaccustomed to building transit facilities, might be a bad idea also.

The County is getting a lot of criticism for what happened, but at the same time, officials get lots of push in terms of market-based "solutions" and supporting local business.

Too often, public-private "partnerships" are not partnerships at all.

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At 5:52 PM, Anonymous John said...

Richard, you write a lot of stuff worthy of consideration, but this article is just lazy. It's a bunch of non-sequiturs that fail to make any point at all about capitalism, privatization or public-private partnerships. The use of private companies to design, build or inspect the structure doesn't make the transit center any of those things. It's a public structure, owned by and to operated for the government. More than anything, this story just shows how badly a government agency can botch things by lacking adequate oversight skills to select and monitor competent contractors. Maybe that's a cautionary tale against extending the government's mandate to also be the architect and builder?

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Well, they figured that they could contract everything out, including inspection, and that more oversight wouldn't be needed, because they hired "the best". I mean, who can complain about Parsons Brinckerhoff? Or the credentials of the people who the inspection company brought to the table? And concrete pouring isn't that big a deal is it?

And Foulger-Pratt has built a lot of buildings, very successfully, why should they be questioned?

I think this is a cautionary tale for privatization. You can call it a dereliction of oversight.

I think we're both right.


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