Residents of Washington D.C.’s sprawling metropolitan area recently got word that the region’s much-delayed expansion of its Metro system is in for – more delays.
Washington’s Metro, which extends into suburban Maryland and Virginia, has been plagued for years by derailments, fires, and other maintenance-related problems. Officials in charge of the system have been forced to shut down one line after another so that long-overdue repairs could be carried out. Ridership on the system has plummeted by 135,000 trips per day in recent years, as once-loyal customers have fled to other means of transportation to get to and from work.
In the midst of the chaos, local officials hit on a novel idea: They decided to expand an already crumbling system. Metro’s heralded Silver Line would expand westward to Reston, Va. and, in a second phase, stretch farther west to Dulles International Airport before terminating in Loudoun County.
And how has that gone?
The 11.7-mile Phase 1 extension was completed six months behind schedule and came in more than $220 million over budget. That was the good news. Construction on the 11.5-mile Phase 2 segment got underway in 2014, is already a year behind schedule, and now isn’t expected to be in operation until the end of 2020. It, too, is facing cost overruns that could eat into the project’s $550 million continency fund.
Virginia officials lobbied for years to secure funding for the project, claiming it would be a boon to the local economy. In truth, it’s been more of a boondoggle. Contractors supplied precast concrete panels that weren’t up to specifications, and other suppliers delivered concrete ties for the rails that had too much curvature in them, which could lead trains to tilt outward. Adding to the concrete woes, inspectors discovered cracks in the girders designed to support the aerial tracks at Dulles International Airport. The list of screw-ups goes on and on.
Across the Potomac River in Maryland, another fiasco is in the works. There, a 16-mile light-rail system, known as the Purple Line, is attracting unflattering publicity. Construction on the Purple Line, which would ferry passengers between down-market Prince George’s County and Montgomery County’s decidedly upscale Bethesda-Chevy Chase neighborhood, is over a year behind schedule. Maryland officials are squabbling over how to come up with the additional $200 to $300 million needed to complete the project by 2023.
Across the Country
Similar horror stories are unfolding elsewhere. In Honolulu, a project to construct a 20-mile elevated rail system is five years behind schedule, and its budget has ballooned from $4 billion to $8 billion and counting. California, always good for bad news, boasts its magnificent Bullet Train designed to carry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco. After the cost of the project had more than doubled from the original estimate of $33 billion, and was running a breathtaking 13 years behind schedule, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) — unable to shake down the Trump administration for more money — greatly scaled back the project.
The Washington Post (July 21) reports a study by Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjergthat which found that “nine out of ten mega-projects – those that cost more than $1 billion to build – exceeded their budget. And transportation projects, he said, went over budget an average of 44.7%.”
The big losers in all this are taxpayers, whose hard-earned money is thrown at these projects with reckless abandon. Every now and then a head will roll or a company fined when things go really bad. Yet despite such well-publicized boondoggles as Boston’s infamous Big Dig, these project continue to hold an allure for politicians and their cronies.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with upgrading transportation infrastructure; indeed, if done properly, it can benefit public safety and make a community more economically viable. But mega-projects can also be grotesquely wasteful. The next time your community proposes one of these things, make sure it is something that is really needed, and that adults are in charge from start to finish.