New England has some hard learned lessons for the rest of the country when it comes to infrastructure. Boston is home to the nation’s biggest highway project, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (a.k.a. “the Big Dig”).
The Big Dig has become synonymous with corruption, cost overruns, delays, shoddy workmanship and waste. It is a model for what not to do when building national infrastructure. High speed rail planners should review it step-by step and formulate a plan that is an exact opposite of the Big Dig.
Why was the Big Dig such a calamity? Many reasons can be singled out, but the primary one is that it’s the way we Americans do business: contract the work to the private sector that seeks maximum profit while giving minimum return. A Byzantine system of contractors and sub-contractors gets a windfall of taxpayer money while providing work that is so terrible it has already caused a fatality. This system begs for corruption. Just ask Carmen “The Cheeseman” DiNunzio, Boston mob boss who has been convicted of bribery charges in connection with the project.
The market fundamentalists who took over during the Reagan years and pulled the strings for George W. Bush deserve the lion’s share of blame for letting America’s infrastructure crumble. They advocated an inferior model for building infrastructure because it is designed for profiteering and not the public good. When it comes to infrastructure Gipper, government is the answer.
It is as clear as day when looking at the world’s best transportation networks in Europe and Asia that the government has taken the lead to build the rails, highways and other transportation links itself. In some cases a public/private partnership (P3) is acceptable, but only when dealing with one firm (e.g. the German federal government and Siemens).
Just some of the companies contracted out to construct the Big Dig were Jay Cashman, Modern Continental, Obayashi Corporation, Perini Corporation, Peter Kiewit Sons’ Incorporated, J.F. White, the Slattery division of Skanska USA and the mob. Dole out $6 million here, $10 million there, and the bookkeeping starts to get a little fuzzy, leading to ballooning costs.
One part of the Big Dig story is right out of “The Sopranos,” but with a Boston accent. The largest concrete and asphalt supply company in New England got its fat check and supplied the state of Massachusetts with at least 5,000 truckloads of sub-standard concrete. The result: The private contractor pocketed some extra cash and motorist Milena Delvalle was killed by a 40-foot ceiling section of the tunnel that collapsed on her car.
The Northern New England High Speed Rail Corridor is a chance to fundamentally change the way things get built in America. The new way will eliminate the unscrupulous profiteering that can be deadly and replace it with a non-profit system focused on the public good.
The developed countries already have their high-speed rail systems built and the up-and-coming world powers (such as China and Brazil) are surpassing America in terms of their rail networks via government initiatives.
New England can prove to be a critical catalyst for high-speed rail development in the States by doing it for New Englanders and not private businesses.
[photo credit: Flickr, Federal Railroad Administration]