Thursday, August 03, 2006

Lessons from the Big Dig

Stephen Moore looks at what went wrong with the biggest earmark of them all - the Big Dig of Boston.
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.
Remember, two-thirds of this mess was paid for with federal tax dollars. There was little incentive for limiting costs in Boston because they knew that Washington would pay for it.
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.

This mix of federal funds and local patronage probably lies at the heart of the tragic mess that Boston now faces. There are lessons to be learned here, but I somehow doubt that we will learn them. Pork and patronage are just too popoular.