Government can do good stuff

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By DON VOWELL

We could use another Conde McCullough right about now.  Just over 30 when he became head of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Bridge Division, he designed 600 bridges. I think of him when I drive across the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport, a bridge that seems beautiful to me, which was one of his stated design goals.  It was begun in 1934 and finished in 1936 at a cost of $1,301,016. That’s about $21.5 million in today’s dollars.  There’s an example of a government that could do stuff.

Fast forward to now.  The proposed bridge across the Columbia River has cost about $130 million so far and the plans still haven’t been approved.  Because it is not high enough to allow some of the upstream manufacturers to move their fabrications to Astoria on a barge, the $130 million design still might not be approved.

Or look at one of the largest projects ever undertaken by ODOT, the straightening of Hwy 20 out near Eddyville.  The original cost estimate was $140 million.  Now the price tag is up to $366 million and some of that will be spent blowing up the failed bridges of the first contractor, since departed.

Closer to home, we have the Courthouse Square project, which resulted in a condemned building, and an astonishing lack of people willing to take credit for it.

One common denominator here is that all of these grandiose misfires burned a lot of tax dollars.  Lost money is a serious thing, but even more serious is the loss of confidence in government.

It was not government that wasted all this money.  The government is at fault only for awarding bids to contractors that, in some cases, were not experienced or qualified for projects of this scope.

There’s nothing we can do to make 2013 look like 1934, but it might help to look at some things that have changed.  In 1934 it was private contractors that built the bridge, but the state employed capable people who designed and oversaw its construction.  In all the catastrophic failures listed above it is private contractors that caused the grief.  Contractors licked their chops at the scent of government money and made promises they couldn’t keep.

Maybe we were sold a bill of goods when the rush began to contract out everything.  The design of projects, the construction, and sometimes even the ongoing inspections are all contracted out.  It is true that we were able to eliminate some State of Oregon employees that drew high salaries.  It is also true that they earned their keep.  We used to depend on top-notch engineers to design and oversee construction of our large and costly projects.  Their interests were served by building the best they could for Oregon.

Now things are contracted out to businesses whose primary interest is profit. It doesn’t look like that has saved us much money so far.  Instead of using ODOT engineers, who might not have built on a mudslide, we are demolishing the bridges as designed by the imported engineers.

The idea that government is incapable of doing big things right seems unwarranted.  Private contractors have cost so much that you’d think we might have a second look at supporting a government with the expertise to stop the hemorrhaging .

Go drive your car across Conde McCullough’s $1.3 million Yaquina Bay Bridge.  Then go drive your car to the bank of the Columbia River to see where the $130 million high-end consultants’ imaginary bridge might someday cross.  How’s that working for us?

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer.)

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