No sooner did the California planned “bullet train” between the San Francisco bay area and points south meet its demise at the hands of our new Governor, that word reaches us of an even greater planning, engineering, environmental and fiscal disaster. This one comes to us from Hawaii. If you have any interest at all in the construction of public works and the acquisition of land for them, you must read the front-page story in today’s Wall Street Journal. See Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg, Rail Line Runs into Trouble in Paradise, March, 23-24, 2019, p. A1.
It’s a story that defies our efforts to sum it up concisely, but fortunately, the authors have done it for us, so we will have to be content with just quoting the pertinent part of the Wall Street Journal article, starting on the front page:
“Among the cascade of problems Honolulu pushed ahead before fully planning the project, and nearly 100 contracts had to be reworked, causing delays. The city began construction before fully checking Native Hawaiian burial grounds, and a judge halted the project for over a year. Planners built too close to power lines, so Honolulu must shell out hundreds of million of dollars to move them.
“Dogged by such blunders, the project has seen its price tag soar to more than $9 billion from about $5 billion. The cost overruns are among the largest that transportation experts say they’ve ever seen. The cost has led to an extra excise tax on businesses, which can affect the price of goods and services, and it has hit tourists through an expanded hotel tax.
“The federal government has suspended payment of its share of the budget. And a recent state audit said officials misled the public about the train line’s shaky finances.
“A federal grand jury is now looking into the project. Last month, the municipal body overseeing it received three subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney for Hawaii, demanding files on consultant contracts, correspondence with agencies, relocation payments and other records. Federal officials haven’t disclosed the focus of the sweeping probe.
“Honolulu elevated rail line shows how badly municipalities can stumble in tackling giant infrastructure project, especially when they are powered by political urgency. . . .” * * * “Others wonder how well will a commuter line befits island life, since stations won’t be within easy walk of celebrated destinations such bas Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head park.”
We could go on and on, but we won’t. Suffice it to note (in addition to the above missteps) that “steel cables inside precast concrete sections that form the trackbed will be monitored for20 years because some failed during construction.” (emphasis added). You don’t need an engineering degree to reflect of this one.
Once upon a time America was noted and admired for its engineering prowess in designing and building massive infrastructure projects. This was done with primitive 19th century technology and largely with the power of human muscles. But now, it would appear, we can’t even install steel-cable reinforced concrete structures without them failing even as they are being installed.