Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 27, 2009


Danny Westneat, Seattle Times - "We don't envision any cost overruns on this project." - Pearse Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire

"The way I see it, I don't think we're going to have overruns." - State House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn

"There won't be any cost overruns." - State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond

These people are all talking about the tunnel to be drilled beneath downtown Seattle, as a replacement for the creaky Alaskan Way Viaduct. How would you characterize their statements? Informed? Promotional? Utopian? Foolish?

A new body of social-science research about the psychology of public-works projects suggests a more pointed set of words may apply. Deluded. Deceptive.

Or: Lying.

That last one is such a loaded charge that I want to be clear: The research is not specific to these public officials, or to our struggle to figure out what to do with the aging viaduct.

But a professor at Oxford University in England has done a compelling series of studies trying to get at why big public-works projects such as bridges, tunnels and light-rail systems almost always turn out to be far more costly than estimated.

"It cannot be explained by error," sums up one of his papers, matter-of-factly. "It is best explained by strategic misrepresentation - that is, lying."

The professor, Bent Flyvbjerg (pronounced flew-byair), has become a flash point in civic-planning circles. Some think he's a rock star; others say his analysis is too cynical.

It started seven years ago, when he published the first large study of cost overruns in 258 mega-transportation projects. He found that nine out of 10 came in over budget, and that the average cost overrun was nearly 30 percent. Rail systems had an average cost escalation of 45 percent.


Anonymous Mairead said...

I'm astonished that someone needed to do a study on this.

Hardball negotiation in which the initial demand is outrageous, meant solely to intimidate, goes back to before there were humans. Probably before there were mammals. It's a bog-standard tool of psychopaths, well-documented in the literature of every social-science field and the pivot of quite a lot of fiction.

Empty promises made and accepted even though both sides know they're empty is the flip side of the same tactic.

As long as we allow poisonous snakes to design our legal systems, we'll continue to have no recourse when bitten by them.

April 28, 2009 9:26 AM  

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