Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Procurement Hell

Hey, remember that story from back in December about Seattle’s new tunnel project, and how poorly construction is going? A 500,000 pound machine custom-built to dig this one tunnel broke down after making it about one-tenth of the total distance it’s scheduled to dig. Ominous!

It started out as a boondoggle, and it’s only gotten worse from there. I find this whole thing baffling beyond comprehension, but Karen Weise wrote a wonderful story for Bloomberg Business about how it all went so wrong. Basically, this particular project isn’t special or remarkable at all. Gigantic public works projects are always way more expensive and way more time-consuming than the contractors are willing to say. Seattle is no different.

Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford’s Saïd School of Business, has followed [Seattle’s problems] from afar. His research on megaprojects has been cited by both backers and critics of the tunnel. Nine times out of 10, massive infrastructure jobs go over budget, he says. Tunnels on average cost 34 percent more than anticipated. No region is better at predicting costs, and estimates over the past century haven’t become more accurate, his data show.

Wow. Those are some pretty earth-shattering numbers. How can experts get these so wrong almost all the time? Whether that means that big public works contractors are lying or simply inept, it’s hard to tell.

Just kidding!

The [Washington State Department of Transportation] WSDOT awarded a $1.4 billion design-build contract to STP, a joint venture between Tutor Perini, a California-based construction company with $4.5 billion in annual revenue, and Dragados USA, the local division of a Spanish company with an expertise in tunneling. […]

STP beat out another consortium in part by estimating it could finish the project by December 2015, 11 months ahead of the state’s schedule. It was time to stop hyperventilating, the state said. “With this contract, we are confident that the tunnel will be built within budget and delivered on time,” declared Paula Hammond in 2011, then the head of WSDOT. (She left in 2013 for the engineering firm that led the reviews.)

Got that? The company that Seattle paid to double-check whether the project would be a disaster gave it a thumbs-up. And then they gave the official in charge of the contract a paycheck. Oh, and by the way, that whole “eleven months ahead of schedule” bit might have been off a little; the tunnel is roughly two years behind schedule. Nothing shady here, though! This is definitely a very large surprise to the reviewing firm. Yes.

Aside from the conspicuous appearance of corruption, Seattle’s ongoing tunnel problems are impressive. According to Weise’s article, the machine hadn’t even begun digging through the difficult part of the terrain when it broke down. I’m sure this story will keep spiraling out of control into a cautionary tale that another local government will ignore at their own peril. I can’t wait!