Dave Gonigam

Perhaps "the Big Dig" is an apropos moniker for the coping mechanism of Empire, considering how it involves starting at the bottom and digging a hole. Nevermind the collapsing ceilings and walls springing leaks…

- Justice 

From WSJ's opinion journal:

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; rampant patronage; nonstop political finger-pointing; and potential criminality on the part of fat and happy government contractors. "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.

Tunnel to Nowhere: You can't Big Dig yourself out of a hole.
By Stephen Moore

BOSTON – On the ride from Logan Airport, we descend into a long spacious tunnel into downtown Boston. "Welcome to the Big Dig," my cabby announces. "Keep your head down, these are the tunnels you've been reading about where the ceiling falls down on you." He was referring to the highly publicized and tragic death several weeks ago of a woman crushed by a 2.5-ton slab of ceiling concrete in the newly opened (and now closed) Ted Williams Tunnel.

My cabby seemed deflated and cynical by this ongoing multibillion-dollar transportation fiasco, and he's not alone. A recent Boston Globe poll found 91% of Massachusetts residents predicted there would be more such incidents, and more than two-thirds are afraid to drive in this vast network of tunnels below downtown Boston. 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 – an image that was aired repeatedly on TV news broadcasts. The state attorney general is looking into negligent-homicide charges relating to the tunnel death.

Those big thinkers who want mausoleums, trips to Mars and other grandiose federal projects to promote "national greatness" might first pay attention to how this 18-year, $14.7 billion civil works project turned into one of the most scandal-prone wastes of tax dollars in American history. Just a few years ago, the Big Dig 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. 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; rampant patronage; nonstop political finger-pointing; and potential criminality on the part of fat and happy government contractors. "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. 

Mr. Romney, one of the leading Republican presidential contenders, has arrived at a Rudy Giuliani-type moment that could elevate or ruin his political fortunes. He inherited this pile of political manure, and Massachusetts's heavily Democratic careerist legislators "just don't want him cleaning out the stables," as Eric Fehrnstrom puts it, who focuses on transportation as one of Mr. Romney's top aides. 

But Mr. Romney scored his first significant victory when he forced the resignation of the independent Turnpike Authority head, Matthew Amorello. Mr. Romney is now empowered to put his own clean-up crew in charge. He seems well qualified for the task; after all, he first gained international renown for righting the scandal-plagued Salt Lake City Olympics. 

Whether he succeeds or not, the nagging question remains as to whether this porcine project should have ever been built at all. 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 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. Meanwhile, contractors were rewarded for delays and overruns with added profits.

When the Big Dig tunnels were finally completed, Gov. Romney suggested naming one of the arteries the "Liberty Tunnel" to pay tribute to the soldiers fighting for freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Legislature protested and demanded that the project be called the Tip O'Neill Tunnel instead. Thankfully, they prevailed. Some 20 years after the earth began to move on this project, the Boston Big Dig conjures up many images, but, alas, liberty and freedom are assuredly not among them.

Dave Gonigam

Dave Gonigam has been managing editor of The 5 Min. Forecast since September 2010. Before joining the research and writing team at Agora Financial in 2007, he worked for 20 years as an Emmy award-winning television news producer.

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