The Little Dig -- 11/14/07

Around here "The Big Dig" refers to the Boston Big Dig, the massive highway construction project that put three and a half miles of Interstate Route 93 into a tunnel beneath Boston (and built a bridge across the Charles River and extended Interstate 90 to Logan International Airport via the "Ted Williams Tunnel") at a cost of more than fifteen billion dollars (yes, okay, so they claim that the total cost was only 14.6 billion, but remember that the original cost was only going to be 2.8 billion and more than a year has gone by since the 14.6 claim). The main Big Dig tunnel is named the Thomas P. O'Neil Jr. Tunnel to honor former Speaker of the House "Tip" O'Neil who had pushed the legislation authorizing federal funds for the Big Dig through Congress, including overriding President Reagan's veto.

The Big Dig has a bad reputation due to the constant cost overruns, the sheer audacity of the graft and corruption involved (amazing even for the Massachusetts Democratic machine), and the shoddy nature of the construction. It claimed the lives of two innocent victims last year when part of the ceiling collapsed, crushing a woman to death in her car and causing the death of a heart attack victim whose ambulance got trapped in a traffic jam caused by closing that tunnel.

So when Rhode Island launched a project to rebuild and relocate the portion of Interstate 195 that passes through the city of Providence (at a cost of more than half a billion dollars, closer to two thirds of a billion -- in part to correct the incompetently bad design and construction of the original route) the state highway dept. decided to rebrand the project as The Iway -- to avoid having people compare it with the Big Dig (which has become a term associated with cost overruns and corrupt politics) by calling it the Little Dig (which people were beginning to do). I guess they think that will make people ignore the recent news about how many times tests showed that substandard concrete was being used in the Little Dig Iway. In most cases the state ignored it and in a few cases they got the contractor to reduce the price. They brag about that. They saved money. Yes, and I'm sure anyone who has an accident while swerving to avoid crumbling concrete will appreciate those savings.

The first part of the project officially opened last week. This brought rush hour traffic to less than a crawl. People were saying "Iway" stands for "I wait." Apparently it never occurred to these highway experts that if you take traffic that fills three lanes to capacity and try to push it through two lanes, you might find traffic backing up a bit and moving at slower than a walking pace. They did hustle and quickly opened up another on-ramp (getting it paved in just one day) and made some other changes to end the bottleneck, but why hadn't they thought about it ahead of time. Perhaps they could even have run some computer simulations? Nancy and I took a class back around 1980 where we used software to model queueing activity. Gee, I bet there might have been some improvements made to that kind of software over the intervening years.

The Dept. of Transportation spent $500,000 on a public relations campaign, consultation from a public relations company with experience with "branding," a special Iway logo and slogan ("Yours. Mine. Ours."), and a series of podcasts in English and Spanish. (They are especially proud of their podcasts; it proves that they are modern and up-to-date.) This morning's Providence Journal pointed out that their public relations budget for the Iway is almost equal to $95 per foot of new roadway.

In the meanwhile, the state is in a budget crisis. In recent years, when other states tightened their belts and cut programs (and taxes), the Rhode Island legislature kept plugging the gaps with a series of gimmicks and one-shot special tricks. As are other states, they are collecting huge sums of money from the settlement with the tobacco companies. Those funds were supposed to be used to fight smoking and to aid those who became ill from their tobacco addiction. Instead the Rhode Island legislature mortgaged that money, borrowed against future payments to cover budget gaps. Now, as the state's economy is faltering (partly because the state's high tax rates discourage business and drive away people in the higher income brackets), there are no reserves to fall back on and the state budget is hundreds of millions of dollars out of balance. The budget must be cut -- no, not just cut, slashed -- although, of course, the cuts cannot in anyway cost the jobs of any state workers. The state employee unions and the state legislators they own will not stand for that even to be discussed.

So other programs must be cut.

Last year the legislature cut the state meals-on-wheels program by five percent. For this coming year the governor had requested level funding for meals-on-wheels, keeping the budget amount the same. The state legislature has just proposed slashing it by another twenty percent. There are currently 220 elderly on a waiting list for meals-on-wheels and the legislature wants to cut their budget by twenty percent -- $100,700. Hmmm, so that means the money the highway department spent on public relations to keep people from calling their big important wonderful project "the Little Dig" (oh, yes, the public is so mean and heartless like that, just imagine, those crude, nasty taxpayers daring to make fun of an innocent little dig, uh, I mean a vital and important Iway) and generating such a weird modern logo design and those really hip and modern podcasts, yes, that money, that could have covered that proposed budget cut for almost five years. Or, it could have covered almost an entire year's cost for meals-on-wheels. Hah! Let them eat podcasts! Perhaps someone should point out to the legislators that if some of these seniors cannot continue to live on their own, with the help of meals-on-wheels, then they may end up in nursing homes and cost the state many times more than the cost of meals-on-wheels.

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