As I begin writing this column about the Big Dig, the Little Dig is
happening just outside my front door.
The sewer line that services my little house ceased to service last
weekend, so the plumbing company's backhoe is digging up my yard. If it finds the problem
quickly, the estimate is between $600-800.00; if it needs to disturb the town road, the
cost could be $2500.00.
If charged the smaller amount, I shall access my "rainy day
fund," the savings account that I keep for a household emergency. If the larger, I
shall set up a toll booth in front of my home and charge my neighbors to drive down the
road. And if there are unexpected cost overruns, I'll call the Registry of Motor Vehicles
and tell them to institute a fee on all drivers, because drivers are the reason we have
streets on top of our sewer lines.
Hey, it works for the Cellucci administration, which thinks it can
raise drivers' license fees to cover the cost of highway construction because drivers'
licenses cause roads!
If only Big Tobacco had just been forced to give me $8 billion
dollars, I could handle this easily. In fact, if the state were to give me my taxpayer
share of the $8 billion "reimbursement" for the Medicaid costs we taxpayers
paid, it would help a lot.
Part of the reason for the "temporary" income tax hike in
1989 was to pay those Medicaid bills. Now opponents of the income tax rollback want to use
the Big Dig issue to deny me my promised tax cut!
In 1986, the Dukakis Administration said that it would cost only $2.6
billion to dig up the city of Boston and fill it in again. We taxpayer activists did what
we always do with any state public works project: we multiplied by the fudge factor of
three. Then we added a billion or so because it was such a big project, and
predicted that it would cost at least nine billion.
Over the years, as the true cost seeped up and out, we easily
adjusted our calculation to its present $15 billion. And we were not alone. State
Inspector General Bob Cerasoli has been warning about cost overruns for years. The Beacon
Hill Institute did a study in 1993, using a more sophisticated methodology than our simple
cynical formula, and predicted that the cost would reach 12 billion at least. So why do so
many officials seem surprised by the new estimate of $12.3 billion?
Hubie Jones, the liberal chair on WCVB's Sunday morning "5
on 5," explained it clearly to the viewing audience: of course the government
lied about the true cost, you can't tell the public what a big public works project is
going to really cost because then they might not let it get started. I'm sure he's right.
Officials hope to get to the point of no return before the lie is
discovered, and they count on "reasonable" citizens moving from anger to
resignation: "Oh well, there's nothing we can do about it now." Then the
government files its experience under "Lies work," to be used for future
reference and future lies.
Governor Weld should have disassociated himself from the Dukakis
project in 1991, sided with the tax/toll/fee payers, and asked if we would be willing to
continue the project despite the higher costs. Instead his administration officials
adopted the Big Dig as their very own pet albatross, and now must carry it around their
Fortunately there is an easy way out for the commonwealth. Along with
the many state slush funds that exist because of recent budget surpluses, we have 8
billion dollars coming to us from the tobacco settlement. There's no point in raising
tolls, foregoing tax cuts, or inviting a court challenge to Registry fees being used for
anything but running the Registry, when all that tobacco money is available while we are
paying for the Big Dig.
The tobacco settlement should be going directly to the taxpayers, but
the state has made it clear that it has no intention of reimbursing us for paying those
Medicaid bills. So they might as well use the money for this state "emergency".
If it makes them feel better about the source, state officials can put signs around the
new Central Artery that say "Drive safely and by the way, don't smoke."
Well, my plumber found the killer tree root and my Little Dig is
done, on time and on budget; I can use my rainy day fund and won't need tolls and fees
after all. Sure could use a tax cut to help replenish the savings account, though.