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Jon Coupal

RIDDLE ME THIS

Riddle me this: Why do government projects never seem to be completed efficiently, on budget and on time?

Jon Coupal

Currently, national attention is focused on the failure of the ObamaCare website. Not since the launch of the Titanic has so much gone so wrong. After three and a half years and a $1 billion investment, most of those visiting the site found it non-functional – reports are that on the first day, only six individuals were able to sign up on a website intended to serve millions. However, this is only the latest IT project to be bungled by government officials.

A September $62 million systems “upgrade” by the California Employment Development Department triggered a backlog of 100,000 jobless claims and thousands of unemployed were still waiting for their benefits more than a month later.

An isolated occurrence? Hardly. In February, state officials jettisoned a flawed overhaul of the state’s payroll system that was $250 million over budget and four years behind schedule.

Earlier this year, the Sacramento Business Journal reviewed some of California’s biggest technological boondoggles and concluded that canceled projects, cost overruns and delays have cost taxpayers more than $2 billion. That’s nearly what the state’s general fund spends on the entire University of California system in a fiscal year.

Yale Professor Peter Schuck, author of the soon to be released, Why Government Fails So Often, and How It Can Do Better, has described most government agencies as operating in an “informational stone age.” He blames government for failing in the design of its own information systems and for pushing unworkable systems on the private sector.

But the failure of government to properly manage projects goes well beyond information technology and very expensive examples are as near as the latest newspaper.

Few Californians can avoid the impact of the gross mismanagement of transportation and highway construction projects in what is becoming the “pothole and detour” state.

A $1 billion widening project on the nation’s most congested roadway, the 405 Freeway running through the Sepulveda Pass, is now estimated to take 15 months more than scheduled with an additional cost of $100 million. Among the causes for the added cost and delay is the faulty construction of miles of new sound walls that had to be demolished and rebuilt.

Los Angeles area residents may think they can avoid the traffic choked freeway by taking to the air, but this too, can be problematic. A Los Angeles International Airport runway, rebuilt just 6 years ago, is reported to be falling apart. Cracks, exposed steel reinforcing bars and deteriorating concrete are creating a hazard for aircraft.

Well at least those running the Port of Long Beach, a few miles furthers south on the congested 405 Freeway, know what they are doing, right? Not so fast. Port commissioners are remodeling an 8 story headquarters building that is now revealed will cost $30.8 million, which is $6.5 million more than originally projected. But that may not seem like much when compared to the new shipping terminal at the port that is running $85 million over budget.

And while we are considering Long Beach, the California Legislative Analyst’s office has just revealed that the state’s $490 million Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse downtown is costing taxpayers $160 million more than it should.

Lest anyone think that government incompetence is subject to a regional bias, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier is launching an investigation into why the new Bay Bridge, that was estimated to take four years and cost $1.4 billion to build, actually took 11 years with a price tag of $6.4 billion.

DeSaulnier has been quoted as saying he wants an answer to the question, “Why was the bridge so over budget and why did it take so long?” Good question but for the word “bridge” one could substitute any one of scores of other government sponsored projects.

However, there is a least one example of a public infrastructure project that was completed properly and even earlier than promised. After the Northridge earthquake of 1994 knocked down two sections of the Santa Monica Freeway, Caltrans estimated that, at its usual pace, it would take two years to repair. A private contractor was brought in to implement an accelerated schedule and much of the bureaucratic red tape was eliminated. With crews working around the clock the job was to be done in five months, but was actually completed 73 days early. There can be little doubt that the contractor was inspired to greater effort by the bonus paid for each day the project came in ahead of schedule.

At the news conference announcing the freeway reopening, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said, “This Santa Monica project demonstrates what can happen when private sector innovation and market incentives replace business as usual.” And after twenty years, those freeway repairs are still holding up nicely.

While there may be no magic bullet for the general managerial incompetence demonstrated by government institutions, Mayor Riordan’s words hold true. A great deal more focus should be placed on providing incentives to those doing the work for taxpayers, to do it well, to do it efficiently and to do it on time.