BIG DIG OR BIG SCAM?

August 3, 2006

Boston's underground and underwater highway project, known as the "Big Dig," has been beset by massive cost overruns and the highly publicized tragic death of a woman crushed by a 2.5-ton slab of ceiling concrete.  So how did this 18-year, $14.7 billion civil works project turn into one of the most scandal-prone wastes of tax dollars in American history?   Even more importantly, says columnist Stephen Moore: Should this porcine project should have ever been built at all?

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, then $10 and eventually ballooning to $14.7 billion by the time the last tunnel was completed in January.
  • That's a staggering, nearly 500 percent cost overrun.

One hopes Congress has paid close attention to this scandal, says Moore, 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.

One of the perversities of federal cost sharing, says Moore, is that it rewards localities with greater infusions of cash in proportion to the levels of waste. 

Source: Stephen Moore, "You Can't Big Dig Yourself Out of a Hole," Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2006.

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