Most have heard the saying that no one takes care of a rental car like they take care of their own. Why not floor the gas pedal or track sand into the car – the reasoning goes – if you’ll never see it again after this week? In many ways, this is a perfect analogy to government waste. No matter which party is in power, spending other people’s money rarely compels one to be as prudent as if they were spending their own. Combine this with the typical politician’s time horizon (the next election) and it’s easy to see why so many government projects and initiatives have been swallowed by waste over the years. Here are 12 of the most outrageous examples.
The “Big Dig”
No project is more synonymous with waste and fraud than the “Big Dig”, the not-so-affectionate nickname given to the rerouting of Boston’s chief highway (Interstate 93) into a 3.5 mile tunnel beneath the city. Originally estimated to cost $2.5 billion in 1985, the project devolved into the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, costing some $14.6 billion in state and federal tax dollars by 2006. Countless contractor changes and environmental obstacles later, Boston.com lamented in 2008 that the Big Dig’s crushing debt had “engulfed the state”, ballooning to $22 billion that will not be paid off in full until 2038 – at the earliest. This assumes no more hurdles for a project whose oversights have already killed a motorist and led a Massachusetts attorney general to demand $100 million in refunds to taxpayers as a result of “shoddy work.” (This last comment might qualify as the understatement of the century.)
The Superconducting Super Collider
In terms of sheer excitement and anticipation, the superconducting super collider beats out everything on this list. In essence, the project was a tunnel inside which scientists would rev up beams of subatomic particles to breakneck speed and crash them into each other. Foreseen as a way to simulate the conditions of the Big Bang and thereby “allow scientists to gain new insights into the very nature of matter”, the ambitious project was unable to get out of its own way, skyrocketing in allotted budget from $5 billion to over $12 billion on the basis of little more than speculation on what other uses (cancer and HIV cures among them) it might serve once it was actually built. After stalled progress, however, 1993′s blitz of budget cuts pulled the plug on the tunnel before it was even one third of the way built. After that, Neatorama reports that it was “used to store Styrofoam cups” before being sold to a private concern for “pennies on the dollar.”
The Vanishing $25 Billion
Many assume the government has extremely strict procedures for tracking the money entrusted to it by taxpayers. Believers in this view received a rude awakening in 2003, however, when it was reported that nearly $25 billion in government spending was totally unaccounted for. In typical fashion the mysterious disappearance of this mind-blowing sum was not publicly addressed. Rather,the only apparent record of the incident appears to be buried deep within the Treasury Department’s Financial Report of the United States Government of 2003, in a tiny section innocently entitled “Unreconciled Transactions Affecting the Change in Net Position.” (Perhaps more outrage would have ensued if the section were more bluntly titled “Spending Unaccounted For.”) Put in perspective, $25 billion is enough to fund the Department of Justice for a full calendar year.
Like so many grand and visionary government projects, “Railhead” – an online terrorist database meant to disseminate information to counter terrorism analysts – was done in by cost overruns and mismanagement. Recalling comments from Representative Brad Miller, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, CNet.com notes “”Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted, delivery schedules have slipped, contractor employees have been laid off.” Miller further stated that the net result was a database that “had been crippled by technical flaws”, replaced by “a new system that if actually deployed will leave our country more vulnerable than the existing yet flawed system in operation today.” While technical flaws have recieved the brunt of the blame for Railhead’s demise, contractor fraud played no small part. ZD Net, for example, reports that $500 million originally earmarked for Railhead actually went toward rennovating one of Boeing’s own buildings!
The $725,000 Pizza Machine
One all too common consequence of spending other people’s money is failure to think ahead. A telling example can be found in San Jose, whose unified school district approved the purchase of a $725,000 pizza machine it claimed would “churn out 800 pizzas a day to sell on various campuses in the district.” In reality, the machine reportedly produced only 2,000 pizzas in two years due to frequent breakdowns, which works out to roughly $360 per pizza. (Caltax jokes that they hope the kids “got extra cheese and generous toppings.) What’s worse, the San Jose school district eventually took pizza off its menus completely when it realized there weren’t enough trucks to deliver pizza to different campuses, all of which had the same rigidly enforced lunch time. The machine is mostly retired at present, trotted out only on Fridays at various elementary schools for “pizza day.”
$90 Billion Spent on Flawed Programs
Much government waste comes not from specific failed projects, but the very way in which programs are designed. In reviewing “just a sample” of the federal budget during one year, the White House concluded that at least $90 billion was being burned on the altar of “programs that were deemed either ineffective, marginally adequate, or operating under a flawed purpose or design.” Unfortunately, just as few of us clean the rental car, it looks as though the opportunity to recover enough wasted money to fund three Justice Departments was largely ignored except for being mentioned in a few abstruse memos that the general public did not read.
Limestone Tourist Park
In their article “Governments Fund The Darndest Things”, Neatorama remembers Bedford, Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to capitalize on its long-standing status as Limestone capital of the world. Undeterred by the fact that few outside of geology really care about limestone, Bedford Chamber of Commerce member Merle Edington concocted the idea of building a Disney World-esque “theme park” around the city’s proud limestone heritage. The main attraction? A 95-foot-high replica of the Greek Pyramid of Cheops built 100% from local limestone. Perhaps fearing that this alone wouldn’t spur an exodus of vacationers to Bedford, Edington took out all the stops in planning a 800-foot-long replica of the Great Wall of China. About $700,000 was committed to this disaster of a project, which luckily never got as far as Edington wished when local politicians came to their senses. Today, Neatorama says, the abandoned site is “little more than a giant rock pile.”
$100 Million in Unused Flight Tickets
Some government waste stories are more excusable than others, but this one is tough to make many excuses for. In 2004, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the U.S. Department of Defense “spent an estimated $100-million in six years for airline tickets that were not used and failed to seek refunds” – even though the tickets they had purchased were completely refundable! Adding insult to injury the Pentagon then happily reimbursed at least $8 million employees who claimed to have purchased these unused tickets. Unsurprisingly, the reason that the unused ticket scandal (which spanned 1997-2003) took so long to be discovered is that the Defense Department relied on its employees to report unused tickets, which, of course, they did not.
Cross-Florida Barge Canal
Anointed the dubious honor of being one ofCNN’ s “largest, oddest, and most useless state projects”, the Cross-Florida Bridge Canal was a disappointment surpassed by few others. Originally envisioned as a way to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico, the idea was picked up during the Great Depression, when politicians put unquestioning support behind anything that promised to “create jobs.” After being discussed and opposed by environmentalists from at least 1930-1965, the end result in 1991 was, as CNN calls it, “a $120 million partial scar across the middle of the state”, which was soon pronounced dead and converted into a greenway which, ironically, is now named after the very environmentalist who so adamantly opposed the Canal during the 1960′s.
Pentagon Credit Card Abuse
No recollection of outrageous government waste would be complete without mention of the U.S. Defense Department’s embarrassing credit card abuse. According to Fox News, some 36,000 DOD employees “had defaulted on $623 million in official travel expenses charged to the government cards” as of November 2001, and bad debts which had to be written off by banks were reported to have been “growing at the rate of $1 million per month.” Discovery of the eye-popping credit card abuse at the Defense Department triggered a flurry of Congressional hearings, especially amidst allegations that high-ranking officials were turning a blind eye to egrigious charges by personal associates and friends.
Medicare Buys Shoes For Amputees & Walkers For Paraplegics
Arguably the most inefficient and wasteful of all government initiatives is Medicare. Despite strong support from citizens across the spectrum of political opinion, the program has come under fire for several damning instances of waste and fraud. Perhaps the most outrageous surfaced in a 2008 MSNBC report, alleging “billions in questionable claims” including, amazingly, special diabetic shoes for amputees! Other claims included wheelchairs for sprained wrist victims and walkers for known paraplegics. Lest these be seen as merely anamolous incident, MSNBC goes on to explain that such waste (totalling over a billion dollars) was likely the result of Medicare paying out claims with “invalid diagnosis codes” such as “?”, “zzzzz.” One source was quoted as saying that “even smiley-face icons could have been accepted.”
The Teton Dam
It’s one thing when government waste simply involves money. When the cost extends to human lives, the matter takes on a much greater magnitude of seriousness. A case in point is the infamous Teton Dam debacle in Idaho. As CNN reports, the $100 million dam, built between 1972 and 1976, was intended to “provide irrigation, electricity, and (ironically) flood prevention for the thousands of people living in its 305-foot-tall shadow.” Small leaks began to appear in the dam following its completion, which were initially downplayed in the self-congratulatory glow typically accompanying completion of government projects. Before long though, the small cracks grew large enough to unleash 80 billion gallons of water that “eventually engulfed bulldozers and sent workmen fleeing in terror.” When all was said and done, 11 people had been killed, thousands of acres of land had been flooded and over $2 billion worth of damage had been caused by the epic dam failure.