Government-Funded Engineering Projects: What Could Go Wrong?

by Stephen Mraz
Feb 21, 2017

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.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Feb 22, 2017

You have to admit, when we set ourselves up for failure, we do it in a huge, flamboyant, star-stangled way. Can't wait for the government pension funds to unravel and bury us in more debt and tax. But to the question of - "If there is a country out there doing a top-notch job at funding engineering and science, please let me know" - my response would be: that relative to the results we have seen here, it would have be China. They've had high-speed rails in operation for over a decade (yes they've had safety issues to overcome - no gain, no pain). They have deployed a version of bus using super capacitors that fast charges on route at stops along the way. They are funding thorium reactor development (technology pioneered in the US, but abandoned decades ago) answering issues of true energy independence and managing waste from rare earth mining. We have rare earths here, but "choose" to buy from China, instead of compete with them. Our American ingenuity isn't being developed and rewarded anymore, as during the decades of the space race, it's being trampled in the stampede of politicians to the trough. The same provincial mentality that gave us light water and breeder reactors, with critical operations, and long term waste disposal issues. So, yes, on a relative scale, there are countries doing a much better job in this area. Where is our SR-71 of the energy sector? In development? Doubtful. It'll be OK. I'm sure it will be fine - we can wait a decade and buy the next generation energy technology from China, assuming our credit is still good with them by then.

on Feb 22, 2017

I like that his name is Flake. Very appropriate considering that's what scientists and engineers call people who went to school for engineering or research management who have no idea what they're talking about but can't not talk because they can't do anything else.

on Feb 22, 2017

A worthy successor to Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards of years ago. Sadly, it seems some things in Washington never change.

on Feb 22, 2017

Since you obviously know what's what, how do we go from 1940's diesel tech to what the rest of the world is doing? I have been on the Shinkansen in Japan and the high speed trains in Europe and they are very different from what we get here. For that matter - the high-speed trains in China are better. Or do you advocate that the future of the USA is to be a has-been as a technologic player?

on Feb 22, 2017

When I was a kid Greyhound and Trailways could take you nearly anywhere in the country. My father could get around the country steam powered on rails and even on Mississippi river boats.
It is ridiculous to see planeloads of passengers weathered in at airports within 200 miles of their destinations. Unifying air lines and bus lines would save tremendously in time and fuel. I imagine that some anti-trust consideration must forbid it.

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