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As part of his $25 billion plan for California’s water system, governor Jerry Brown wants to build two tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Each tunnel would be 40 feet high, 35 miles long, and together they would cost nearly $17 billion. Backers of the plan would do well to consider the pitfalls of a smaller tunnel underneath downtown Seattle. According to the Washington State department of transportation, the dig will allow replacement of the State Route 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct, move two miles of the highway underground, and “clear the way for new public space along Seattle’s downtown waterfront.” New public space sounds good, but Reid Wilson of the Washington Post outlines some of the pitfalls.
Launched in 2009 at a cost of $2.8 billion, the Seattle project was slated for completion in 2015, but that is not going to happen. For one thing, “Bertha,” a 2,000-ton boring machine created specifically for the project, hasn’t worked for an entire year. The machine, Wilson notes, “isn’t able to reverse itself” and will have to be hauled out for repairs by tunneling down from above. This could push the completion date to 2017, but local officials estimate that 70 percent of the money has already been spent.
According to Wilson, even backers of the project are comparing it to Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, also known as the Big Dig, “that took two decades to build at a cost nearly 10 times initial projections.” That cost would be $14.8 billion and the project spanned, count’ em, six U.S. presidents and seven Massachusetts governors. That massive waste caused no hesitation to the Seattle diggers, and neither project appears to have given governor Brown any second thoughts on his far more extensive tunnels. If subject to the same cost overruns as the Boston Big Dig, they would saddle taxpayers with $170 billion. Closer to home, the new span of the Bay Bridge came in $5 billion over cost and ten years late, but raised no caution with the governor.
Government tunnel vision remains blind to massive waste, fraud, incompetence, and even environmental objections, which abound with Brown’s Big Dig. Government tunnel vision sees only the prospects of spending, the rewarding of political backers, and a glowing legacy down the road. Government tunnel vision is like Bertha, the boring machine that “can’t reverse itself.” So more grandiose and wasteful government is in store for 2015 and beyond.