I was just a bit surprised to read, in both the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, that the company responsible for the I-35 bridge inspections before that tragic crash was the exact same company that designed the Sabo pedestrian/bicycle bridge that has become somewhat unmoored this week. The company is known as URS Corporation. Even stranger, the I-35 bridge collapsed the same year (2007) that the Sabo bridge was opened. The I-35 bridge collapse resulted in URS paying $53 million to the victims. The Sabo bridge cost $5.1 million.
Long story short, I got curious about the company, wondering if there was anything significant about these strange coincidences. My google search led me to their website at http://www.urscorp.com/
Now google seems to know that I live in Minneapolis, so the first thing I saw was the Hiawatha Light Rail pictured on URS’s website. It turns out that they got the contract for the project management, design and construction of the Hiawatha Light Rail. Hummm, I wonder if that might have something to do with the difficulty I have in crossing the tracks at 32nd Street.
But really, the light rail is small potatoes for URS. They have build reservoirs in New Zealand, freeways in California, airports in China, subway tunnels in NYC, a BART station, a California high-speed rail system, a London Underground expansion, and light rail projects in Denver, New Jersey, Dallas and San Diego. Wow! Who knew.
I started wondering what else they did. It turns out that they are heavily into military contracting. (No, as far as I could find, they do not provide mercenaries to anyone.) They train military pilots from several branches how to fly. They train drone operators how to fly drones. They train submarine operators how to do their jobs.
You learn acronyms when you do these searches. A new one for me was CBRNE, which stands for chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear and explosive … as in areas of what they call “threat reduction.” Under this category, they train “first responders” to problems involving weapons of mass destruction. They also defuse and dispose of materials involving radioactivity, biological weapons and so forth. URS, as it turns out, is the company that the United States government calls when they want to de-commission ICBM’s in the former Soviet Union, or weapons in Albania, in the Caspian Sea, the Ukraine, etc.
Still in the URS company website, I decided to see what sort of background the various members of their Board of Directors. Here is what I found: a former exec of Northwest Airlines, a former Senator from Tennessee, a former director of the L.A. Airport, a former exec at Coca-Cola who had also done time with Clorox, a retired general who was director of Lockheed Martin and also former vice at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Kaiser Aluminum director, a Con-Way (the trucking company) exec, and the president of a semiconductor company.
By this time, it was getting to be a bit past midnight, and I was getting tired of the business/military jargon, so I want to a different website. I checked them out on a website that tracks lobbying. http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000023660&year=2011
Last year, it turns out, URS spend $1,470,000 in lobbying the following areas: appropriations, hazardous and solid waste, energy and nuclear power, transportation, defense and aerospace. I have no idea how this stacks up compared with other representatives of the 1%, In fact it is down from their 2008 high of about $2 million. I did find it interesting that they had almost no lobbying expenses at all prior to 2008; in other words, nearly all their lobbying expenses have been during the Obama administration.
What does this all mean? I’m not quite sure, actually. There is this big worldwide company that doesn’t even have a name, only initials, so it is a bit hard to remember. Sounds boring, as a matter of fact. And maybe they are just having a bit of bad luck here, what with busy bridges falling and new cables snapping and whatnot. But I have to wonder. A huge company that does everything from light rail projects to high-speed rail to training drone pilots to chemical weapons disposal. This company sounds way too big to fail. But they did fail with their inspections of the I-35 bridge and it is looking fairly bad for that bicycle bridge near my house as well.
What conclusions should we draw? It it wise to trust this company? Does it seem to you that they might be able to teach a drone operator how to assassinate a terrorist without killing a bunch of kids? Would you trust them with some weaponized anthrax? What do others think?
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