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Riding the new commuter train from Los Angeles to Pasadena, I think about the powers that turn history forward and back.
Half a century ago, these tracks were torn up and replaced by freeways. The "Red Cars" of Pacific Electric were laid off in favor of automobiles, smog, and oil wars.
But a Pasadena muse hums in my ear as I sit aboard the newly re-built Metro Gold Line and listen to fellow passengers who share their conversations in Chinese. Sometimes the powers that make history have to realize that the "Red Cars" were good ideas in the first place.
Looking up later from the pizza joint at De Lacey and Del Mar, the logo of the Parsons Corporation smiles down the avenue like polished teeth. The global engineering company is on a billion dollar binge these days, feasting on a banquet of federal contracts that have much to say about where the powers of history are taking us these days.
If we only count the money since New Year’s Day, there is first of all the Jan. 6 contract for $1.8 Billion from USAID. The package, known as "Iraq Infrastructure II" is a sexy three-way partnership between Parsons, Bechtel, and Horne to build electricity, water, sewer, airport, seaport, schools, "selected ministry buildings," and more.
"After developing an implementation plan in conjunction with USAID, the team intends to hire the maximum number of Iraqi employees at all levels, to subcontract to qualified Iraqi companies to the maximum extent possible, and to provide comprehensive training and work experience for Iraqi managers and their employees. Also planned is a significant program to include small businesses in the project," gloats a press release posted at the Parsons website.
Then, on Jan. 14, the company bagged a $500 million starter package from the US Army Corps of Engineers. This three-way with DynCorp and Michael Baker is renewable for four more years and another billion dollars. The Corps needs help with engineering projects in "twenty-five countries in Central Asia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa."
Chants that demand, "US out of Iraq now" seem meek in the context of this five-year plan by the Corps of Engineers for the greater CENTCOM region that stretches from Kazakhstan to Kenya.
Then, on Jan. 29, the Air Force joined USAID and the Army in allocating contracts to Parsons. The Air Force sewer gurus, otherwise known as the Center for Environmental Excellence, tapped Parsons to keep the toilets flushing at the Tadji military base in Iraq.
"’A key benefit of completing this project is giving the Iraqi Armed Forces the facilities they need for the defense of their country,’ explains Major General Paul D. Easton, U.S. Army, commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance and Training Team."
By the way, Parsons got to know Air Force environmentalists while inserting 18×2-inch tubes into wells at air bases across the country. Technically called "Passive Diffusion Bag Samplers," the tubes allow the Air Force to measure precise depths of toxicity.
But getting back to Iraq’s security needs, the Parsons wastewater project at Tadji is one of 2300 total projects that will employ tens of thousands of Iraqis, says Rear Admiral David J. Nash (retired), who directs the Pentagon’s Program Management Office in Baghdad, and who is quoted in a Parsons press release.
Indeed, the power to direct billions for public works and jobs programs is something worth bragging about during this election year.
Admiral Nash was prominently featured in a March 12 story by the Associated Press, archived at Google, drawing attention to cozy relationships that appear to exist between powerful contractors and US administrators overseas.
Says the AP: "The Parsons Brinkerhoff construction company was one of two companies picked to share a $43.4 million contract to help manage reconstruction of Iraq’s electricity grid. Retired Navy Rear Adm. David Nash, director of the program management office for the Pentagon in Baghdad, is a former president of a Parsons Brinkerhoff subsidiary.
"The company also has Republican connections. It gave $90,000 to various Republican Party committees in the past five years, and $8,500 to similar Democratic groups."
The Republican administration sells itself as purveyor of small government, not interfering in the lives of self-directing people. But quite a different image emerges if you take Parsons as one exhibit of power on the spot. These days, Washington is taking the whole world for a ride.
When Parsons announced last September that they were appointing Karen L. Kimball as Business Development Director for their Energy Sector of the Systems, Defense, and Security (SDS!) Division of Parsons Infrastructure & Technology Group, the company bragged again.
"As the DOE continues to evolve and expand its mission, Karen brings exactly the skills we need to identify and develop opportunities to expand our role as a strategic partner with the DOE," states Jack Scott, Parsons Group President.
Back in September, the folks at Parsons were talking like they already knew.
On Feb. 10, Parsons landed a three-year fabrications contract at the Hanford toxic waste facility in Washington state–a contract that once again builds upon prior relationships and dirty work. In 2001 Parsons began working near Hanford to, "fabricate and test its neutralization systems that destroy nerve and blister agents from the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile."
"The chemical demilitarization programs will continue through 2012, providing jobs for Hanford’s skilled workers and fabrication opportunities for the transferred shop," brags a Parsons press release.
Then on Feb. 25, Parsons announced a startup venture with Evergreene Construction to build Air Force housing. The brand new company, to be headquartered in Utah, "has already landed contracts valued at $480 million for 24 projects at 19 U.S. Air Force bases."
On March 4, Parsons earned the privilege to go around the world and pick up unexploded bombs. Not surprisingly, Parsons has been doing this type of work for a couple of decades, too.
"This contract award gives us the welcome opportunity to continue managing an important program that secures and destroys conventional weapons and equipment, which otherwise could be used against our troops or cause death or injury to innocent civilians," notes Jack Scott, Parsons Group President.
Most recently, on March 25, the Pentagon gave Parsons a contract for $500 million, "to provide design-build construction services for projects associated with the construction of new, and renovation of existing, public buildings, hospitals, healthcare clinics, and housing throughout Iraq."
Baghdad remade in the image of Southern California is a tempting image, considering the career of Parsons’ newly named VP for Infrastructure and Technology, Kenneth J. Deagon. A November press release tells the story of Mr. Deagon’s rise, from manager of the Southern California region, to manager of Middle East operations, then to manager of the Captured Enemy Ammunition Program in Iraq.
At the courtyard of the Westin Plaza Hotel in Pasadena, moonlight splashes into bubbling fountains. Fresh spring breezes carry chatter. And tonight, the palm trees of Pasadena cut a silhouette readymade for Baghdad skies.
Under a flag of inevitable destiny, costly choices are being made by Washington today. An 8-lane freeway paved for history itself. But the Pasadena muse reminds us that sometimes the old "Red Cars" can’t be forever put away.