A new magazine called Miller-McCune has compiled a list of "The World's Biggest Boondoggles," and right up there in fourth place is Seattle's Sound Transit Link Light Rail (phase 1, not the proposal we'll vote on next November). Here's the dishonorable mention:In 1996, Seattle proposed a $1.67 billion light rail line from the University of Washington down to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to be opened in 2006. By 2000, before construction had even begun, cost estimates ballooned to more than $4 billion, and Sound Transit pledged to scale back. The next year, the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general advised Congress to hold back funding for the project due to overruns. Along the way, several Sound Transit executives resigned, and State Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald revamped the state's cost estimating system. ... Two stages, covering about 16 miles from downtown Seattle to the airport, are now scheduled for completion late next year at a cost of $2.4 billion. An extension to the university, planned for 2016, will cost $1.7 billion more.
Among the others on the list of mega-boondoggles are: Denver's International Airport, which soared from $1.5 billion at announcement in 1985 to $5 billion on completion in 1995. The English Channel Tunnel, which came in at double the bid price of 4.75 billion pounds and half the estimated revenue. Boston's Big Dig, which ballooned from $3.7 billion to $14.6 billion. Miami's Metrorail expansion, with costs that tripled from the initial estimate. Sydney Opera House, which went from $7.2 million to $102 million and took ten years longer to build than expected. Lastly, Bay Area Rapid Transit, which came in at double the original cost estimate and 50 miles shorter.
Are you shocked? If so, consider that most of these projects are in fact wildly popular, even if the public had to be gulled to go along with building them. It's standard practice to low-ball cost estimates, in order to get the bond issue passed, and then to add on costs as politics requires and the public demands more than the bare-bones model. The political context almost always changes once these huge projects begin. (For instance, San Mateo and Marin counties dropped out of BART, and Sound Transit found that it would have to put up lots of money to appease Rainier Valley, miffed that it didn't get a tunnel.) And often these are newly formed agencies, as Sound Transit was, and they can make lots of rookie mistakes in the first years.
The classic case of how ultra-high-profile projects go wrong is the Ground Zero project in New York City, still horribly mired down. In a scathing overview by Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal, you can learn more about how these mega projects go wrong. They almost always involve multiple jurisdictions, which produces warfare and expensive compromises and pandering. There is usually a big problem with centralized leadership. There is a crippling split between economic goals and long-term urban visions. Lastly, what Huxtable calls "goofy planning populism" dictates that thousands of stakeholders be empowered and given a voice at the table.
All this sounds like the Seattle planning malaise, in which nothing happens and nothing gets resolved, may more properly be described as the big-project, many-masters malaise, which has become globalized. Meanwhile, voters confronted with bond issues for such mighty plans might keep in mind the same rule of thumb that works when you call an architect to remodel your house: Double the budget and double the estimated time. And remember, it's usually worth it, if you somehow get it built.