McDonnell Team to Spend $289,000 in Taxpayer Money to Sway Taxpayers on Bi-County Parkway

John Undeland, StrataComm senior vice president
John Undeland, StrataComm senior vice president

by James A. Bacon

The McDonnell administration has agreed to pay a Washington, D.C., communications consultancy $289,000 to help win public support for the proposed Bi-County Parkway in Northern Virginia.

The details are laid out in a Scope of Services agreement obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas. The contract calls for Stratacomm to “engage the public and foster a deeper and wider understanding of the Bi-County/North-South Corridor and its benefits, laying a foundation of support for the subsequent steps of the project.”

Marshall said that to his knowledge it was unprecedented in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the state to use taxpayer dollars to hire an outside public relations firm to conduct a grass roots campaign in support of a highly controversial project still going through the public approval process. Said Marshall: “I’ve been in office 22 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. If it has happened, it has been very rare.”

The McDonnell administration has made it a top transportation priority to advance a North-South Corridor running along the western fringe of the Washington metropolitan area. The middle segment of that corridor, known as the Bi-County Parkway, is highly controversial. Citizens have packed public hearings in opposition, Republican members of the General Assembly have publicly denounced the project, and the Prince William County Board of Supervisors has backed off from providing its endorsement.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is required to go through public hearings and other steps as outlined in its Policy Manual for Public Participation in Transportation Projects. The Scope of Services agreement spells out how Stratacomm will supplement those hearings with “additional meetings, public interface and marketing activities”  in accordance with the Communications, Consultation, Public Outreach and Community Engagement Plan.

Stratacomm describes itself as a “strategic communications consultancy that helps clients educate, persuade and motivate people to drive desired results.” One of the company’s areas of specialties is transportation projects. John Undeland, senior vice president and partner, is a former public affairs manager for the American Automobile Association. His corporate bio lists the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge project across the Potomac River as the firm’s “flagship” project. “John’s navigation of the project’s public image steered it from being a magnet for controversy to a point of regional pride.”

Marshall objected to the expenditure of public funds to “lobby public officials to do something they don’t want to do.” He characterized the outreach to homeowners associations and civic groups as “propagandizing.”

“Transportation Secretary Sean] Connaughton has no business at all doing this,” Marshall said. “He ought to be ashamed of himself. This is stealing public money.”

According to the agreement, the outreach extends to elected officials, media, the traveling public, property owners, homeowners associations and civic groups and business groups. The initiative will focus on Bi-County Parkway positives, including “mobility and accessibility benefits,” “associated economic benefits,” and “safety improvements.” In coordination with state authorities, Stratacomm will develop a “comprehensive stakeholder database to track and manage stakeholder communication,” provide content for the project website, establish a point of contact for public inquiries, and assist in the development of fact sheets and a newsletter.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which has actively opposed the $400 million Bi-County Parkway,  also took exception to the expenditure of public funds to influence the public. Said Executive Director Stewart Schwartz in a prepared statement:

We should expect VDOT to conduct objective studies and to fairly consider alternatives when evaluating billions of dollars in transportation expenditures.   Yet for the BiCounty parkway VDOT hasn’t been objective and they never fairly evaluated an alternative to a highway in this corridor.  They have steadfastly ignored community and preservationist concerns.

Rather than reevaluate their proposal, they have decided to pay a PR firm $289,000 to SELL the public and elected officials on the highway, using our tax dollars. …

It’s one thing to do outreach to encourage the public to participate in the study process and offer their input.  That’s a legitimate use of tax dollars, but to use tax dollars to fund what amounts to  propaganda campaign is another matter entirely.

While Marshall and Schwartz both regard the expenditure of public funds in this manner as inappropriate, neither could say if it was illegal. State law does prohibit local governments from expending public funds to influence the electorate on referenda. Governments can disseminate information but it must be “neutral.”

Bacon’s Rebellion left a message with Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyeryar asking why the administration hired Stratacomm and whether, in his view, the expenditure is legal. In his FOIA response to Marshall, dated Oct. 3, 2103, he noted that “as of this date, no invoices have been submitted and/or paid.”

An expense itemization attached with the agreement projected 500 hours of work by a senior vice president, presumably Undeland, at a billable rate of $250 an hour, for a total of $125,210. The agreement also would pay an account director for 390 hours of work at $210 per hour, as well as smaller sums for the work of other employees.

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12 responses to “McDonnell Team to Spend $289,000 in Taxpayer Money to Sway Taxpayers on Bi-County Parkway”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Very interesting story

  2. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This practice has grown ever more pernicious over the years.

    For example, the Metropolitan Airports Task Force hired and paid George Mason University to do a study that would predict a massive inflow of daily commuters from outside the Washington Metropolitan Region (large numbers coming from West Virginia and Pennsylvania), flooding all the roads to the north, west, and south of Dulles airport.

    In my view, reading the study, the Washington Airports Task Force, purporting to act on behalf of the Dulles Airport and the public, was primarily acting on its own behalf to bust open the Virginia Piedmont with a flood of new roads that would drive sky high the value of the land in which members of the Task Force had a substantial interest. Not only could such a study help to generate profits on land sales, it could also help to generate legal, engineering, architecture, and consultants fees for other Task Force members. In addition, George Mason, whose president was on the board of the Task Force, earned a fee for its study.

    So everybody was going to get rich off a vast new road network paid for by the public. Public funds from taxpayers would build the roads and then tolls generated on the backs of the commuters would build yet more roads and manage traffic in ways that got trucks quickly in and out of the Dulles area. It was quite an elaborate plan. And to succeed it needed a big sales and public relations push combined with strong arm tactics if necessary. (The latter becoming apparent when resistance to the grand plan was encountered) This is a classic example of how many self appointed task forces, boards, and councils in Virginia bring home the bacon.

    So, once the pre-cooked study was complete, the Task Force and others used it for their power point road shows, and other sales effort. Thus the George Mason study became part of an elaborate effort by special interests and the State (all in alliance one with the other) to sell the public and to accomplish their grand road plans, including yet another shot at the Outer Beltway as described in this websites A Mortgage on NoVa’s Future.

    I read the George Mason missing links Study. Mildly stated, I considered it conclusions no more reliable that TV Advertisement. To my mind, it was yet another example of the original Tyson’s Corner Task Force Study done around 2005. There a private company was hired to do a marketing sale piece dressed up to look like a serious impartial land use analysis. At least that is what it looked like to me based on my real estate experience.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Let me add that there is nothing wrong with private interests pursuing their own goals while in the course of supporting public interests. This is most often a very good thing. It’s common as rain water in the giving of gifts, the fellow who funding a college building gets his name put on it. This is one of endless examples, people doing public good for their own gain too.

      And donating one’s expertize free of charge to help solve public problems is also a noble and generous activity. Donating one’s valuable time based on one’s expertize and experience to a public cause in lieu of, or in addition to, donating one’s money to a public cause is even more noble. I suspect that more of this sort of nobility and giving can be found in Virginia than most anywhere else. It a long and noble tradition in the Commonwealth.

      But when special interests group together in the name of the public good, to divert massive amounts to public monies into projects than financially benefit those groups, or that have the potential to do so, then the slope becomes very slippery very fast. And far too often, it happens long before the donor realizes it. And many never do. That is human nature.

      When this happens, the best of original and current intentions can then achieve selfish results long before those with the special interests even began realize what is happening. It is well known that very few act against their self-interest, and most all of us act in our self interest most all the time.

      But when playing with other people’s money and other peoples lives and how other people can spend their time, including actions and decisions that force other people into long commutes to feed their families or that jack up their cost drive on a public road, or that jack up the cost to buy a ticket on a airplane at a public airport, these are not the sorts of things to played with private interests, or to be gamed for someone else’s special advantage.

      No, these are the sorts of things that require the up most of restraint and respect and responsibility and impartiality, and private interests should not be able to dictate or unduly influence those decisions.

      Nor should the state join in with private interests to achieve results by means of false narratives, or hidden agenda’s, or misinformation, or sales and marketing campaign to achieve pre-cooked results. Nor should the state or private interests, or those acting on their behalf, engage in thuggish behavior in private or public forums to achieve pre-cooked results favorable to their special interests. To do so is contrary to honest and responsible government. And it is also contrary to the rights of other citizens and those public servants trying to do a good job fulfilling their responsibilities in a representative government. So when the state joins in these special interest activities than the stakes of misconduct sky-rocket.

      So after all that has gone on now for decades over these road issues at hand, why does the Government of Virginia hire a public relations firm to harden the appearance of an its own alliance with special interests to influence public opinion to achieve results that may well be counter to the public good and the interests of the majority of its own citizens?

      Is this good public behavior? Is this good government?

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        And, what is the relation of the recently issued Georgia Mason University Air Cargo study to the ongoing campaign to gain public approval for the proposed Bi-County Parkway? Who paid for it? I do not know. But for some possibilities on that subject, see recent comments to this websites “Air Cargo Case Study for Bi-County Parkway Crashes and Burns” Article.

  3. […] Bacon has a story about the McDonnell administration agreeing to pay a private consulting firm a princely fee to help […]

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    This passes neither the “so what” nor the “who cares” test. VDOT is going to spend a little money to get out the word why they think this transportation project is a good idea. Good for them! I guarantee you that the Coalition for Smart Growth will be spending its tax free contributions to argue just the opposite position.

    As for Sideshow Bob Marshall – spare me. The guy’s been a bit unhinged for as long as anybody can remember. He can take vast sums of money contributed to his campaign to get his viewpoint out but it’s wrong for VDOT to want to get their viewpoint out.

    This project may be a good idea, it may be a bad idea. However, hearing from both sides seems very reasonable. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing the VDOT perspective as well as the opposing perspectives.

    The Commonwealth of Virginia would be about the 150th company on the Fortune 500 if it were a public concern rather than a state. The idea that it shouldn’t spend money to educate people on its position and recommendations is absurd.

    1. VDOT has every right to put out information and solicit public input. In the past, VDOT has abided by certain protocols. It holds public hearings and makes presentations at those hearings. It has public information officials who field queries. It publishes information on its website. If appointed officials like Sean Connaughton want to stump for administration priorities, that’s fine. He’s a political appointee. If CTB board members want to lobby for a project, that’s fine, too. They’re appointees, too. If Connaughton reaches out to private organizations to agitate in support of administration policies, I’ve got no problem with that. They’re spending their own time and money.

      But those things are very different from using taxpayer dollars to hire outside consultants to influence public opinion.

      Once you allow that practice to begin, where does it stop? Would it be OK for Connaughton to hire pollsters? Run “public service” ads? Send out direct mail fliers? Where would you draw the line? Obviously, you don’t have a problem with $300,000. How about $3 million? How about $30 million?

      I think this is every bit as bad as GiftGate — worse, in the sense that taxpayers are being bilked $289,000, whereas in GiftGate, they didn’t get bilked for a dime (that we know of yet). The General Assembly should take up this issue when it’s dealing with ethics reform.

        1. Apparently VDOT has more than one PR contract running for this:

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        You have a nihilist outlook. You don’t believe in anything. So, you are perfectly happy with the Coalition for Smart Growth, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Southern Environmental Law Center and other nihilist organizations scooping up fortunes in tax free contributions to promote nihilism.

        I see no material difference between using tax free contributions to oppose everything and using tax money to support the decisions of government. Why should the nihilists be the only groups allowed to effectively market their ideas?

        It also sounds like this PR firm is competent. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project was yet another victory over nihilism. Oh boy did people come out of the woodwork to whine and cry when that project was first announced. Anybody who had ever lived anywhere near that bridge knew that it was an epic engineering disaster. The vast majority of people wanted it fixed. But not the nihilists. Oh no. The nihilists oppose everything. They hold their breath, turn purple and sue when they don’t get their way. But they lost. And guess what – the project has transformed that area – on both sides of the Potomac.

        It’s time the modernists fought back against the nihilists.

        As far as Bob Marshall – if he ever had to run across Northern Virginia he’d get less than 10% of the votes vs any credible opponent. He represents a small and shrinking number of uber-conservatives in Prince William County. His friend Ken Cuccinelli won his last state senate election in PW County by 65 votes. In other words, he was one election away from being just another former conservative-nihilist politician in Northern Virginia.

        And no taxpayer tab for GiftGate? Really? Who is paying for McDonnell’s legal defense since your nihilist comrade in arms recused himself from the Star Scientific case based on his own bad behavior?

        If you guys in Central Virginia want to live in a nihilist paradise – that’s just what you should do. De-evolve the state government to regions and you guys can have a no tax, no government, no progress region. You don’t get to take any money from any other regions. You become a semi-autonomous tribal land – like on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I even have a name for the new region – Nihilastan.

  5. hmmmph… I couldn’t get past nihilist.. though I do understand what DJ is saying.

    Some times I wonder if VDOT/Richmond is attempting to jump-start/piecemeal-build a twin I-95 corridor from DC to Richmond.

    and sometimes I wonder if they just came right out and said it was needed that it might gain support from those who use I-95 between DC and Richmond and wonder what needs to happen next.

    Hardly a day goes by these days that there is not one or more incidents on that section of road that basically hose it for hours and more than a few folks are thinking the dual I-95 thoughts.

  6. […] has aggressively pushed the Bi-County Parkway, even going so far as to hire a public relations firm to pitch the […]

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