Thursday, December 18, 2008

What Happens When the Federal Government Gets Involved in Infrastructure?

Big Dig charge nets $16M settlement - OK, so this is a minor story about tragedy, that doesn't have much to do with my point, but it reminded me that the federal government has gotten involved in "infrastructure improvements" from time to time.

I don't know if The Big Dig is the worst example, it only jumps out at you. It is also a reminder of what happens when one party has its own way.
Mitigation notwithstanding, the Big Dig still would probably be a near-forgotten dream like Westway if not for Massachusetts’s Washington dominance in the late seventies and eighties. Democrats ran Capitol Hill, and Massachusetts’s wholly Democratic congressional delegation had a lot of seniority. Everyone in Massachusetts thus assumed that they would fund the project with “ten-cent dollars,” of which the feds would pay the other 90.
Tip O'Neil was majority leader, if you can't remember that far back. And how did they get support to override a Reagan veto?
In a preview of how Washington would work over the next two decades, they approved goodies that other states wanted, too. Wavering out-of-state politicians came on board.
Everyone was happy. So oversight was lacking.
After Tip’s override, local Big Dig planners never worried about pesky things like whether cost estimates and project scope were reasonable. Massachusetts had proved that it was more powerful than the president; surely there would always be more money where its initial funding came from. But over the ensuing decades, the Big Dig’s price tag waxed and Massachusetts’s congressional power waned. Washington imposed a firm dollar cap on its Big Dig spending at the turn of the millennium, leaving Massachusetts to pay the rest. State taxpayers would eventually foot nearly half the project’s cost.
Will other states (are you listening Illinois?) learn that power shifts over time? Probably not.

A lot of engineering feats went into the big dig, with a few cost-cutting errors (like the epoxy that failed leading to the tragedy in the first story), they did a lot right. The problem was in the politics. Underestimating costs to get approval. Whole sections of the project (the mitigation of various problems/complaints for example) were omitted from the initial cost estimate. So much for truth in government. But when has that been valued? (or at least by the people IN government?)
But the Big Dig’s planners truly failed the public through a deliberate decision: for years, they used dubious accounting methods that hid true costs.
Dubious accounting methods. Sounds familiar.

They kept pretending the thing would cost 8 billion, when they knew - as early as 1994 - that it would cost at least 14 billion. But when everyone thought that the federal government was going to pay for 90 percent of the Big Dig, the real cost wasn't that important.

Aside from the cost overruns (or deliberate under-budgeting) there is also the problem of shoddy workmanship. First, there is the July 2006 death of Milena Del Valle. She died when a 26 ton "ceiling tile" fell on her car, and it was determined that incorrect procedures had been followed for securing those "tiles." (Who dreams up a 26 ton slab of concrete, suspended from the ceiling, and then calls it a tile?) Leaks are also a problem.
A massive effort by Big Dig contractor Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff reduced the number of the most serious leaks near the tunnel roof from more than 800 in March 2005 to just three eight months later, according to Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff records posted on the turnpike's website. But the state sharply curtailed efforts to seal leaks when it took over maintenance in 2006, and the number of serious leaks going unchecked rose to 237 last month, according to interviews and turnpike records.
Which brings up the question of maintenance costs. Is this to be an on-going problem? And it also has implications for the life of steel reinforcements in the tunnel walls, as they experience more corrosion than expected.
state officials acknowledged there is already surface rusting on 10 percent of the massive steel girders in the ceiling.
So much for a 25-year life-span.

With what looked like an open check-book in Washington, planners in Boston could ignore common sense and hang massive concrete blocks from the ceiling. Business knew that inspectors were stretched and cut corners in places. And if Boston is anything like Chicago, a few politicians probably got some campaign contributions to look the other way on those cut-corners.

In short, what appeared to be an endless supply of taxpayer money for pork spending, brought all the pigs to the banquet. Now the public has to live with the results, or die when the failures become severe. Today we are told we must open treasury not for 15 billion of this kind of spending, but for 500 billion or more of this insanity.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to drive across all those bridges that will be built in the next 4 years.

No comments: