A Skeptical Engineer
Government-Funded Engineering Projects: What Could Go Wrong?

Government-Funded Engineering Projects: What Could Go Wrong?

It’s not as if the government can’t do anything right. After all, even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while, as my father used to say. But finding worthwhile engineering projects and funding them appropriately is not one of our government’s core competencies. I’m not sure it’s any government’s competency.

(If there is a country out there doing a top-notch job at funding engineering and science, please let me know.)

If you want proof? Take a gander at this year’s Wastebook put out by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). It describes dozens of highly questionable engineering and science projects that have brought few if any benefits to citizens. Here are just two of them.

Robots' Inaction: The VA bought two robots in 2021 to help distribute supplies throughout its Madison, Wisc., facility. Cost: $313,000. After about 18 months, during which the robots clogged hallways and did a less than adequate job at delivery, the robots were sent to a VA site in Milwaukee, where they sat unused for about a year, then sent a VA site in Chicago, where they again sat unused for a year.

The VA eventually decided to cut its losses and auctioned them off. The winning bid was about $2,000, and it came from the company that designed and built the robots. A VA Inspector general concluded the VA had wasted $311,000 on robots that could not operate effectively within the facility due to inadequate planning.

High-Speed Train Derails: California’s high-speed train, the largest U.S. public works project currently underway, is supposed to stretch 520 miles from L.A. to San Francisco when it is competed, but the project seems to be chronically overbudget and behind schedule. The project started out in 2010 with about $3 billion in federal grants and California taxpayers kicking in another $10 billion or so. The citizens were promised the train would not need public subsidies due to overly optimistic ridership projections. The company building the trains and rolling stock, Ferrovial, a Spanish company, indicated on its winning bid for the contract that the train would likely require large government subsidies for years to come. The train team, the California High Speed Rail Authority, took this warning out of the proposal when it was put online for the public to see. Nothing like transparency.

The project team estimated the train and tracks would cost $64 billion and passenger service would start by 2020. That soon jumped to a cost of nearly $100 billion and passenger service would be delayed until 2033.

But construction has been delayed as local, state, and federal authorities argue over the path the tracks should take and where train stations should be. There have also been legal, financial, and environment hurdles that have been difficult to overcome. So far, no track has been laid, though some work has been done building overpasses, tearing down structures, and moving utilities.

If the country were flush with all pensions fully funded and a future of non-stop budget surpluses and full employment on the horizon, some goofy projects would be more tolerable. But the U.S. has a $20 trillion national debt, the largest of any country in history and growing. Needless to say, it’s time to reprioritize government spending.

I am not hopeful.

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