6 outrageous transportation boondoggles
From France’s Panama Canal debacle to this year’s Chinese high-speed train scandal, transportation projects seem to bring out the best/worst in civic overreach.
6. Alaska’s 'Road to Nowhere' (2006-2008)
Location: Ketchikan, Alaska, United States
The dream: Build a bridge to replace the ferry linking the coastal city of Ketchikan (population 7,515) to its airport on Gravina Island.
The reality: Construction of the bridge was halted after pressure from citizens who deemed the project an unnecessary luxury and symbol of government waste.
Too bad by the time the idea was scrapped, the ink had already dried on the contract to build a US$25 million road leading to the bridge. Workers went ahead and built the road (completed in 2008), knowing that it would amount to an extravagant dead end.
Projected cost: US$400 million
Actual cost: US$26 million for the road (but no bridge)
Outcome: A hilarious photograph of a “road to nowhere” and a fiasco that became a minor issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign for Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
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5. Melbourne’s Myki System (2005-present)
Location: Melbourne, Australia
The dream: Develop a high-tech, fare- and time-saving touch-card payment system to be used on Melbourne public trains, trams and buses. Contracted in 2005, the project should have been completed in 2007.
The reality: Poor planning, mismanagement, human error and computer errors resulted in huge delays and a maddeningly inconsistent system.
Getting Myki's bumbling reputation off to a terrible start, many new cards were mistakenly sent to dead people, among then, deceased military veterans as reported by The Herald Sun.
In 2010, Melbourne's Transport Ticketing Authority admitted it had been forced to recall more than 30,000 "smartcards."
On Myki’s first full day of operation, a number of cards failed to scan, resulting in hellish commuter lines. Other cards over- or under-charged users.
Computer glitches led to A$167,000 accidentally being deposited into three lucky commuters’ smartcard accounts.
Locals ended up losing money by being overcharged and paying taxes to support continuing upgrades to the system.
Projected cost: A$494 million
Actual cost: A$844 million
Outcome: Although the authorities have contemplated scrapping Myki altogether, for now the ticketing system is in operation and improvements are being slowly implemented.
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4. China’s Jinghu High-speed Train (2011)
Location: Shanghai-Beijing, China
The dream: Build the world’s fastest train, capable of reaching speeds of 380 kilometers per hour, to make the run between Shanghai and Beijing in under four hours.
The reality: The Jinghu train project has been riddled with corruption and scandal, as well as budget and safety concerns. In addition, as reported by the Washington Post, it has proven too expensive for most Chinese citizens to use.
Corrupt practices began to unravel when former railways minister Liu Zhijun was sacked in February 2011 for allegedly helping himself to approximately RMB 800 million (US$123 million) in kickbacks, accepting illegal contracts and blowing government money on sexual liaisons with 18 mistresses.
On March 23, state auditors reported that RMB 187 million had been embezzled from the railway.
In May 2011, after the train was up and running, additional construction was halted to address safety and environmental violations.
To date, the railways ministry has accumulated at least US$271 million in debt due to cost overruns. Recent reports suggest that ticket sales alone will likely not generate enough income to cover the debt.
Projected cost: RMB 300 billion
Actual cost: Estimated RMB 500 billion
Outcome: New minister of railways Sheng Guangzu, who replaced the ousted Zhijun, told the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily that the fastest routes will be cut from 350 kilometers per hour to 300 kilometers per hour to accommodate safety and energy efficiency concerns.
Fares (and revenue) will also be lowered to make the train more affordable to the masses.
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3. British Columbia’s Fast Ferries (1990s)
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
The dream: With delusions of revitalizing Vancouver’s faltering ship-building industry, the local government hoped to develop a “fast ferry” technology that would create local jobs and could be sold on the world market.
Other goals of the project included addressing passenger complaints about long queues and pollution.
The reality: Ship construction began before plans were complete.
Once finished, the new PacifiCat fast ferries burned enormous amounts of fuel and created strong wakes that damaged residential waterfronts.
The new sleek interiors were too tight and uncomfortable for passengers accustomed to the more spacious slow ferries. Worse, the ships weren’t geared for the fast loading and unloading essential for commuter ferries.
The Auditor General reported that lack of research, poor planning, ignoring sound advice from professionals and rushed deadlines resulted in the project falling three years behind schedule. The entire plan was eventually scrapped as citizens reverted to the old, slow ferries.
Projected cost: CAD$210 million (USD$214 million)
Actual cost: CAD$460 million (USD$470 million)
Outcome: The ferries were sold to a world market all right, but for a fraction of what it cost to build them. CBC reported that the three 122 meter CAD$460 million (USD$470 million) PacifiCat ferries were auctioned off to the Washington Marine Group in 2003 for pennies on the dollar, an embarrassing total of CAS$13 million (USD$13 million).
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2. Boston’s Big Dig (1991-2008)
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
The dream: Reduce hellacious peak-hour traffic problems on the primary, elevated highway -- Interstate 93 -- that cuts through Boston.
The engineering feat would include building two cross-river bridges, highway extensions and a wider underground corridor beneath the outdated “central artery” highway.
In order to excavate beneath the road while keeping traffic in motion, engineers designed a complex array of underground highways, bridges, ramps and braces to support the existing roadway.
The reality: The Big Dig was in peril from the beginning. Major contracts from engineering firms were incomplete, and error-filled designs resulted in cost overruns of billions of dollars.
In 2004, the new tunnels sprang nearly 700 leaks, allowing millions of gallons of water to pour in.
According to the Boston Globe, between 2005 and 2011, the dangerous "Ginsu guardrails" that line the tunnel to protect workers caused auto accidents resulting in eight deaths.
In 2006, a motorist was killed when part of a tunnel ceiling collapsed because the wrong type of epoxy resin was used to hold the ceiling together.
Projected cost: US$2.6 billion.
Actual cost: US$14.8 billion, eight deaths and an additional 5 years of construction.
Outcome: The Big Dig was officially completed in 2008 -- with a 2,000-item to-do list left to be dealt with. Improvements continue to this day.
Reports say the project currently saves US$168 million annually in time and cost to travelers, but danger still looms. Corrosion caused a 50-kilo light fixture to fall into traffic lanes in February 2011.
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1. France’s Panama Canal debacle (1880-1889)
Location: Panama, Central America
The dream: Dramatically reduce voyage time on shipping routes (28,968 kilometers between New York and San Francisco) by connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via a canal built through approximately 80 kilometers of Panamanian jungle.
The reality: Led by French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps (acclaimed for directing the successful effort to build the Suez Canal, completed in 1869), the French clusterhackage in Panama commenced with the start of active excavations in 1882.
Poor planning humiliated the effort from the beginning -- non-engineer de Lesseps insisted on a Suez-style, sea-level canal, as opposed to a system of locks through mountainous Panama -- while malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases devastated the work force.
Emblematic of the disorganized struggle, the French inexplicably ordered 10,000 snow shovels to aid the effort. Bankruptcy brought an official end to the catastrophe in 1889.
Projected cost: 300 million francs
Actual cost: At least 1 billion francs (probably more), most supplied by the French public, and 20,000 lives, most lost to disease.
Outcome: The French withdrew in humiliation. The United States bought out French for their rights and property USD$40 million in 1904 and completed the lock-system Panama Canal in August 1914, perhaps the least auspicious month in the history of La République.
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