I tried to say as little as I had to publicly for as long as I could. As the outcome was uncertain, I was still going to have to work with whomever for better mass transit in Hampton Roads in the end.
By the evening of December 19 - the day the first cost overruns story went to press - I had already made the calculation that the TDCHR could have either Michael Townes as President of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) or the Virginia Beach extension, but not both. Later statements by Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and then Councilman Glenn Davis' Resolution reaffirmed that. As the crisis dragged on, I worried about the long-term damage to chances of improved mass transit both in Virginia Beach and throughout the region.
The thing most of Michael Townes more adamant critics tend to miss is that he's extremely well-connected in Washington. That's why even those on the TDCHR who weren't his fans were willing to let him stay on previously: they knew he could bring home Federal dollars that most couldn't, aiding the cause of mass transit expansion in Hampton Roads. In turn, he'll now stay on the payroll through the end of September specifically to help land another round of Federal funding. (The Federal fiscal year begins October 1.)
There were two issues here: the cost overruns themselves, and the attempt to hide them from the TDCHR for as long as possible. The latter got short notice in the media, but might have had a bigger impact on the final outcome. FYI, each month the TDCHR is given a set of financial reports, one being the Norfolk construction report. The TDCHR was being fed reports that the Norfolk Starter Line was under it's revised budget of $288 million. For all the fingers being pointed at the TDCHR in this fiasco, the truth is that senior HRT Staff was intentionally misleading them.
Townes seemed to think he could hold on. Apparently the Virginia Beach farebox embezzlement was the turning point. As part of their monthly packet, the TDCHR gets committee reports and a report from Townes. The full Commission wasn't told about the issue at their December 10 meeting. That had enough votes wavering that everyone was willing to sign off on the deal bringing things to an end. For all those complaining about what Townes got in severance, it was a small price to pay to put this all behind us.
What next? First, the need to choose an interim CEO. It likely will be Senior Vice President of Operations Homer Carter. He's a nice and knowledgeable guy, though much more low-key publicly than Townes. Second, figuring how to cover the cost overruns. Third, selecting a permanent CEO. Finally, after all that was done, I would suggest the TDCHR hold a strategic planning meeting. Not only will the TDCHR and new CEO probably want to revise some policies, but there will be a need for a component to help restore public confidence.
I've had the opportunity over the past few years to work with Michael Townes. He's knowledgeable, can be amiable when he wants to be, and has done a few things for me. He got me started drinking Coke Zero at work. (Townes' thirst for Coke Zero is a running joke at HRT.) Once the new permanent CEO is on the job, it will be a new era for all of us.