As Alaska takes center stage in the national political debate, I appreciated your article "Derailing the Boondoggle" (September). Alaska's "Bridges to Nowhere" have been rightly condemned as excessive federal pork projects. But there's another massive project — the expansion of the Port of Anchorage — that promises to be the largest ports project in the nation, at a cost sure to exceed $1 billion. While the port plays a vital role in Alaska commerce, expansion proponents refuse to answer two basic questions: What is the demonstrated need for an expansion this large and costly, and how will they pay for it? Few have heard of this megaproject, but Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Democratic senatorial candidate Mark Begich (currently mayor of Anchorage) both support the project without answers to these basic questions. Alaska has a long history of boondoggle projects that grope for federal largess, yet even in this age of "earmark reform," we're seeing more of the same in the Last Frontier. So thank you — your article helps explain why.
Watch Us Blush
The article on the work of Bent Flyvbjerg ("Derailing the Boondoggle") was terrific. Local politicians seem determined to produce a flood of big projects (stadiums, rock halls, convention centers), all of which over-promise results. Flyvbjerg's research, which was well reported in your article, gives us some tools to challenge the big promises.
Link Doesn't Work in Cover Story
I love your magazine, but I have to take issue with your September feature article, "Derailing the Boondoggle." In it, you listed the Seattle area's Link Light Rail project as being a "bill of goods." While it is true that there were problems with Link in the beginning, you don't mention that those problems have been worked out. Since around 2002, Sound Transit (the agency building Link) has been under the wise, competent management of CEO Joni Earl. The board of directors has adopted an official policy of under-promising and over-delivering so future projects don't get off track. And construction of Central Link — the initial line — has gone smoothly despite multiple engineering challenges.
As for our ill-fated monorail, it's unfair to mention that in any analysis of Sound Transit because the agency had nothing to do with that project. The monorail authority was completely separate.
You also didn't mention that our 2007 proposition to extend light rail was paired with an equally large roads expansion proposal. Post-election surveys showed that voters wanted separate votes on roads and transit and considered the package too large, so they rejected it. Sound Transit listened to that feedback and has placed a follow-up proposition on the ballot for November.
Finally, I was surprised that the list consisted mostly of rail projects and cultural or civic institutions. The only wasteful highway project you could find was the obviously flawed Big Dig? Your list could have used more balance.
Boondoggles We Ignored
This list ("Bill of Goods") is skewed. Where's Pyongyang's 1,000-foot rickety pyramid? What about the Burj Dubai, an upside-down money pit if there ever was one? And the Superconducting Super Collider, a $10 billion toy to get a few more physics Nobels? BART took a long time to get moving but has expanded in recent years, and who in Sydney regrets the Opera House? Optimism bias is rampant in these large projects. They're boondoggles because the initial cost estimates are ridiculously lowballed, not because they're not worth the money.
Steven I. Dutch
Professor, Natural and Applied Sciences
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Green Bay, Wisc.
If People Like It, Is It Still a Boondoggle?
This piece ("Derailing the Boondoggle") needs some cleanup in a few areas and a fresh perspective in others. Putting the Sydney Opera House and BART on a list of boondoggles is an odd choice. Both projects had cost overruns, to be sure. But the Opera House is Sydney's most-known landmark and was such an architectural treasure that its architect won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the biggest award in the field. BART is widely regarded as a stunning success. It, too, had some cost overruns, but residents continue to support its expansion to communities farther and farther from San Francisco. Ridership is rising steadily. Throughout the piece, there seems to be a willful failure to take account of inflation.
"Watchdog" Had Plenty of Bite
I read with interest, and approval, the "Not the Editor's Letter" by John Mecklin ("The Watchdogs of Academia," September), which could be summarized as saying that in making and implementing public policy the ones who know best are silent while the ones who know the least dominate the discourse and agenda. Worse, the ones who know least are even further compromised by their political interest, about which they are unrepentant. Of all the watchdogs that have been sleeping, there is one that you mentioned but discussed little: the professors.
Allow me to tell you briefly my story. I am a retired academic in the field of criminal justice, and many of us could argue that American public policy in that area is the worst of any other area (but I admit that's saying a lot). I took on a post-retirement career by coming to Washington and becoming a volunteer advocate for research-based crime policy at the federal level. My Web site (www.crimeletter.net) gives you more on this.
There are some of my colleagues who are on board with me, and a fairly large number have a tacit agreement but are unwilling to do anything. I think it's because they don't know what to do or how. ... Still, the movement of the national criminology organizations has been minimal at best.
I rail about this in my newsletters, but my message has not caught on. We natural allies who believe that "truth" in the best form we can find it ought to lead policy are marginalized, and the "dumbest kids in the class" are in control.
Takoma Park, Md.
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