Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Train Comes to Brunswick; Maybe You Missed It?

There’s been much discussion and concern over whether Amtrak will make it to Brunswick, especially now that we have Maine Street Station opening. “Station” has many meanings, but there can be no doubt that the theme of this in town development is based on the classic definition of a depot for various forms of transportation.

It’s unclear, to this reporter at least, what the outlook is for a train that runs on actual rails to reach our Station and provide regular service. As you know, this service would be an extension of the Amtrak Downeaster that runs between Portland and Boston.

Those who know the background of Amtrak realize that it is anything but “sustainable.” It requires generous political capital to survive, on top of the more ordinary financial capital.

Brunswick’s Amtrak situation is ripe for meddling and political posturing, and rumblings on the rails are that both are occurring in full measure.

No matter; there is another train already making its presence known in the Brunswick area. It depends heavily on political backing and all that comes with it, but it has nothing to do with Amtrak. I refer to the Gravy Train.

The Gravy Train has already caused major excitement in our area. If you’ve been following the exploits of Jim Horowitz, F. Lee Bailey, and Oxford Aviation, you know they’re expecting a sizable tank car full of gravy to arrive soon, compliments of redevelopment of the Naval Air Station, or to be more specific, taxpayers.

They’re not the only ones. Others are already dining on a gravy shipment that arrived a few months ago. The whistle didn’t blow when this train came in to town, so most don’t know about it, but it arrived just the same.

Here I go again being a tease, for no good reason, right? OK, I’m talking about the traffic study “designed to investigate traffic alternatives related to redevelopment“ of BNAS, as reported recently in our local paper.

It’s a $1.2 million effort “commissioned by the Maine Department of Transportation in partnership with the governor’s office, the Maine Office of Redevelopment and Re-employment, the towns of Brunswick and Topsham, and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the civilian entity charged with leading civilian redevelopment of the base.”

Clearly, all relevant local agencies and entities are involved in the commissioning, signaling that they all support the cost of the effort. The performing firm is VHB, operating out of its office in Bedford, NH.

Let me digress for a moment. I spent my career in the defense industry, and I’m no stranger to outrage over “$400 hammers” and “$800 toilet seats.” If you like, I can give you an explanation of how our government sponsors such apparent idiocy.

But we’re not talking about special hardware or systems here; we’re talking about a study. The only tangible product involved is paper on which intellectual content is recorded. And it’s about traffic and highways, not defeating the subsurface threat or ICBM’s.

My employer’s price structure for labor, including studies, was transparent. You took actual labor cost (salary) and added overhead (benefits, security, plant operations, and all sorts of things) at about 125%, and to that total, you added “general and administrative expense” at about 17% and “fee” at about 10%. The net result was that a dollar’s worth of labor went “out the door” to the customer at somewhere between $2.50 and $3.00, depending on the labor category.

Using this as background, I wondered what a $1.2 million traffic study was buying in the way of services. If it was a one year study, they would be spending $100,000 a month. If the average study employee was making $1500 a week, a very nice income, thank you, and the overhead structure of the consulting firm was as outrageous as the defense industry, the study would be employing 5 full time individuals for the year to conduct the study, all while the parent firm was earning a tidy profit.

But those figures aren’t appropriate in this situation. There should be a labor mix of technicians and computer analysis operators, along with a few senior engineers and a program manager or two. And the “loaders” on their salaries should be nowhere as high as an aerospace firm.

I suggest that the average salary for a study participant should be about $1200 a week, still a far above average income, and that overhead and fees on top of that should elevate the total out the door price to no more than $2500. Do the math, and that should mean a full time staff of 10, start to finish, on the study.

That’s a lot of people working for a year to figure out how to re-route our traffic.
Now the plot thickens.

I followed the study link given in the article, and guess what. The study has a 7 month schedule. Given the holidays, we could expect the actual work duration to be 6 months. That makes the “burn rate” $200,000 a month, or twice what I assumed in the prior paragraphs.

That equates to a full time staff, start to finish, of 20 on the study. If you’ve spent a good part of your life spending other people’s money, these figures probably sound reasonable. But if you haven’t, you might find it troubling to say the least. Will there be 10 people standing by the side of the roads monitoring traffic 40 hours a week for 6 months, while 10 others chew away on the data and prepare a report to deliver at the end?

I said when I established this blog that “oxen would be gored, sacred cows would be skewered, and dead horses would be beaten.” I bow to no-one when it comes to cynicism about the conduct of the public’s business by “public servants.”

Now it’s time for you to ask yourself whether the specifics of this study pass a test of reasonableness. Or are we simply being taken advantage of by a system and special interests that know how to ride the train?

As for me, I’ll be looking at my local representatives far more carefully the next time I see them to see who has gravy stains on their shirts, ties, or blouses. And keeping an ear to the ground for a train whistle telling us of the next gravy shipment.

I can’t resist one more observation. While this study has a $1.2 million tab, the city of Portland is proposing a $1.8 million project to build sleeping quarters for four crew members of their new fireboat. To give Brunswick readers a sense of scale, that’s the equivalent of four upper end Meadowbrook homes dollar-wise. That is reasonable, isn’t it?

It’s a sad commentary when the excesses of one government body make the excesses of another look reasonable by comparison. Like it or not, this is how we all go to hell in a hand basket.

One teeny-weeny excess at a time.

1 comment:

  1. Senor Poppycock: You forget that President Lincoln said at Gettysburg that we had a government "of the People, by the People and for the (chosen)People. only the chosen heard the part in parenthesis.