VERMONT - - An engineering consulting firm hired to conduct a $4 million study involving the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway is largely responsible for the disappointing results of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
The New Jersey- based Louis Berger Group was retained last year by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) to conduct an environmental analysis of the next leg of the controversial Circ Highway as well as several suggested alternatives to it. VTrans officials say the court- ordered evaluation is being carried out objectively, even though the agency has long advocated construction of the full 16- mile road, now estimated to cost $223 million.
Environmentalists favoring more inexpensive and less automobile- oriented options say they are satisfied so far that VTrans and the Louis Berger Group are conducting an honest review. "They appear to be taking seriously their responsibilities to fairly consider alternatives," says Sandra Levine, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
VTrans spokesman Ian Grossman adds, "The portion of the Louis Berger Group we've been working with has performed well, both in the quality of their work and in their ability to be responsive. They've been in Vermont as much as needed."
VTrans awarded the $4 million contract to the firm because of "its experience in preparing this type of document," Grossman says. The Louis Berger Group, which specializes in road projects in the United States and in developing countries, has more than 3000 employees around the world.
In Afghanistan, the firm has failed to complete many of the projects specified in its $665 million contract, according to The New York Times. The U.S. government's payment to the Louis Berger Group is the largest made for reconstruction work in that country.
The firm was supposed to have built 96 schools and clinics in Afghanistan by September 2004, the Times reported. But as of the story's Nov. 7 publication date, only 11 of the buildings had been completed and approved by inspectors. A design flaw has forced Louis Berger to replace or strengthen the roofs at 89 of the schools and clinics, the Times added.
Many Afghans are dismayed by U.S. authorities' failure to make good on promises to rebuild the country, which has been devastated by decades of war, including the American invasion following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. One of the Berger Group's uncompleted clinics is described in the Times story as emblematic of what Afghans see as "a wasteful, slow- moving effort that benefits foreigners far more than themselves."
A Louis Berger executive acknowledged that the firm has not performed according to expectations. "If you play just the numbers game, we're going to look bad, no doubt about it," Thomas Nicastro, a company vice president, told the Times. "But if you look at this as a development issue, then you have an understanding of what we're trying to do."
Louis Berger officials did not respond to Seven Days' requests for comment.
According to the Times, the firm says progress has been slowed by the contract requirement that it use Afghan companies to carry out construction work. Few local builders are able to meet speed and quality standards, the Berger Group suggested.
The firm is scheduled to complete the environmental impact study in Vermont by next September. Working with VTrans and federal highway officials, the Berger Group is being paid to help identify a single preferred response to traffic congestion between Interstate 89 and the IBM plant in Essex Junction.
An initial list of 23 proposals was recently whittled to four. Two devised by environmental groups involve improvements to Route 2A from I- 89 to the Five Corners. A third option is to build a 5- mile leg of the Circ Highway linking the Interstate with the completed portion of the Circ that runs between Vermont Routes 117 and 2A in Essex. The final option under study is to do nothing.