Sunday, August 06, 2006

We are Shocked, Shocked, to Find That Pork-barrel Projects Are Models of Waste and Inefficiency

Kinda like light rail in Seattle and the Los Angeles subway, eh ?


Tunnel to Nowhere

Thursday, August 3, 2006
Wall Street Journal

BOSTON -- Just a few years ago, the Big Dig, [Massachusetts' 18-year, $14.7 billion civil works project], was heralded as one of America's greatest engineering marvels--a public works project on par with the Panama Canals and the Alaska Pipelines of earlier eras.
[Several weeks ago, however, a woman was crushed to death by a falling 2.5-ton slab of ceiling concrete in the newly opened (and now closed) Ted Williams Tunnel. This latest debacle followed news of an estimated 1,000 leaks spouting from the walls and ceilings of the Big Dig, which have greatly damaged the steel supports, as well as the fireproofing and drainage systems. One severe breach in 2004 flooded 250 gallons a minute of water into the tunnel]. Apparently, $14.7 billion just doesn't buy what it used to.

When I sat down for lunch with Gov. Mitt Romney, he described a decade-long legacy of drunken-sailor spending behavior, thanks to an endless pipeline of money from Washington [and] rampant patronage. [...]
"What we have here is a systemic failure of accountability as to how the money got spent," he fumed. "We have hundreds of people manning the turnpike tolls who make $60,000 to $80,000 a year." Some electricians with overtime were earning $300,000. According to the state auditor, $23 million was spent on ramps spanning the Charles River, which had to be demolished because they did not meet community approval and led to nowhere. [...]

The original conception was to rebuild nearly the entire transportation infrastructure of metropolitan Boston, replacing some 10 miles of tangled, elevated and bumper-to-bumper congested highways with a system of underground tunnels and byways, including the Boston Harbor Tunnel connecting the airport to city center. At its earliest stages, taxpayer watchdog groups accurately predicted the Central Artery Project (as it is officially called) would morph into a bottomless pit for tax dollars. President Reagan vetoed a highway bill in 1987 (subsequently overridden by Congress) in no small part because he said the Big Dig's price tag couldn't be justified. That was back when the cost estimates were still in the relatively modest $2.5 billion ballpark.

By 1991 the cost was hiked to $6 billion, then $7.5 billion, then $10 billion and eventually ballooning to $14.7 billion by the time the last tunnel was completed in January. That's a staggering, nearly 500% cost overrun, for those who are counting.When I asked Eric Fehrnstrom, [Romney's aide for transportation issues], how the system could be crumbling so quickly, he responded that the project was built with faulty bolts and inferior concrete. "It's clear that the government and the contractors were trying to cut costs by sacrificing safety," he says. Amazing. How can a construction project that comes in some five times over budget have possibly scrimped on costs?

One hopes Congress has paid close attention to this scandal because there's a policy lesson here related to the current budget debate in Washington: The almost inevitable waste and ineptitude that follows federally earmarked funds--and in the Big Dig, we have the most expensive federal transportation earmark in history. Two of every three dollars spent came from Uncle Sam. I asked Mr. Romney--a vocal opponent of the earmarking pandemic on Capitol Hill--whether this project would have been built if Massachusetts voters had been required to pay for it themselves. He shakes his head and concedes, "I doubt it." One of the perversities of federal cost sharing is that it rewards localities with greater infusions of cash in proportion to the levels of waste. Every $100,000 wasted was another hard-hat job created in Boston.


Part of the problem is that the soil under Boston, near the Harbor, is completely unsuited for building tunnels in. Figuring out how to reinforce the tunnel walls well enough was one of the main factors in pushing the project overbudget and behind schedule in the early years.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Take it from Stalin. If you are into centrally-planned, centrally-funded, high-profile mega-projects, it's best to have a gulag handy where you can send the overspenders and those who don't meet their targets.

August 07, 2006 6:46 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I used to work in Norfolk, Va., where immensely long, slow-moving coal trains would block main streets for hours at a time.

There was usually a way around, although sometimes quite a ways around.

My regular route to work crossed such a track, and eventually some millions of dollars were found to build an underpass.

The work closed that route for three years. The alternate route I had to take for three years added about 15 minutes to my commute.

It was a nice calculation whether it was worth doing.

August 07, 2006 6:55 PM  

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