Philip Shucet is wrapping up the first month of his temporary gig as president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), which is leading Virginia’s maiden voyage into locally managed light-rail construction programs with the Tide, a 7.4-mile light rail system in the Norfolk area that is scheduled to begin operation in May 2011. 

Given what the former VDOT commissioner has had to deal with during his first few weeks on the job, he may wish he was back in Richmond trying to squeeze blood from the turnip that is the state’s withering transportation budget. 

Since its 2007 groundbreaking, the Tide has been beset by delays and rumors of out-of-control costs, ultimately contributing to the resignation of Shucet’s predecessor, Michael Townes, in January. 

six-month cost review conducted by HRT and consultant AECOM revealed that the project’s estimated final cost had risen by 46 percent to $338 million. In a statement, the agency attributed the higher pricetag to increases in program and construction management fees, real estate, utilities and insurance, combined with design changes, utility relocation, safety enhancements and  delays relating to the vehicle maintenance and storage facility.

One of Shucet’s first acts upon taking the HRT job was to ask VDOT’s Inspector General to investigate the cost overruns and the agency’s contracting procedures. Shucet will run the agency for up to a year while HRT’s Board conducts a nationwide search for a replacement.  

A funding disagreement between HRT and the City of Virginia Beach also nearly derailed a $6.6-million study to assess the feasibility of extending the Tide along a decommissioned rail corridor.

Facing a dwindling budget, HRT had requested a quarter-million dollar contribution from the city, which is facing an $84-million budget shortfall.
 A review of Townes' previously stated commitments to Virginia Beach led Shucet to withdraw the request, despite a last-minute effort by Virginia Beach’s mayor to garner support for the funding contribution. However, Shucet insists that future initiatives will require localities to meet funding match requirements. 

Also, on Feb. 24, the Chesapeake City Council voted to postpone exploring the feasibility of a Tide extension to the Greenbrier and South Norfolk neighborhoods. After unanimously endorsing the study three months ago, the Council learned that federal funding for the $1.75-million study would require a 20-percent, $350,000 local match, dampening enthusiasm for pursuing the idea this year. 

Despite the rocky start, Shucet is doing his best to restore a sense of confidence to the Tide, and HRT as a whole.  He reportedly assured HRT’s board that the project will move forward without so much as a penny added to the new cost  estimate.

That may be a difficult promise to keep, given the vagaries of light rail construction (just ask the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is walking a thin financial line with the $5-billion Dulles Metro Extension).

On the other hand, Shucet has a proven track record with problem-child transportation programs. VDOT’s project efficiency and financial performance improved markedly during his three-year tenure, reversing years of missed schedules and overruns. 

HRT is now hoping that Shucet can do the same for their agency, and help make news about the Tide something to be welcomed, rather than dreaded.