The Tip: Intervention Needed

It’s time we stopped meekly accepting the astonishing costs of public building projects in Connecticut.

 

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“The public be damned! And we’ve only ourselves to blame since . .  practically every politician involved in the mismanagement of public money will be re-elected.”—Gregg Easterbrook
 

Not long ago I was reading about a high school construction project in Waterbury in which some local homeowners were in danger of being not only forced from their houses to make way for the new building, but also forced to accept payments that were considerably lower than the city’s own assessment of the properties.

It seemed to be a shameful situation (one that was later remedied), but an editorial on the subject in the Waterbury Republican-American caught my attention for a very different reason. One of the editorial’s paragraphs stated: “Unlike the Kelo case, the Waterbury proceeding plainly qualifies as a public use. The city wants to take six homes to make way for a public vocational-technical high school on Birch Street. The $68.2 million school would be a boon to young people, who would be able to pursue training in the skilled trades and other hands-on professions. Moreover, the project would ease crowding in the city’s three conventional high schools.”

Excuse me? $68.2 million? And the small-government-loving editorial writers at the Republican-American didn’t even blink an eye?

What better proof can we have of how far we’ve strayed from our sensible Yankee roots? We seem to have arrived at the point where even the most grotesquely inflated costs of new school construction—or existing school remodeling—mean nothing to us. And it’s certainly not just Waterbury building these marvels (and having the state pay most of the tab). The new Harding High School in Bridgeport is slated to cost $78.2 million. Recent high school remodeling projects cost $74 million in New Canaan, $80 million in Westport and $68 million in Trumbull. The big numbers just don’t seem to register anymore. We are so used to providing “whatever the children need” (according to consultants) or “whatever resources the teachers demand” that there really seems to be no limit on the cost of a new or remodeled school.

I do understand that things just plain cost a lot here in Connecticut. We pay more for everything—from real estate and gasoline to dry cleaning and babysitters—than do residents of most other states. In fact, just to see how much our construction costs outstrip the costs in other parts of the country, I looked for and found a couple of projects that seemed to compare nicely—building projects for high schools in Cabamus County, N.C., and our own Connecticut town of Oxford.

• Cox Mill High School is located in a suburban area just north of Charlotte, N.C., one of those areas of the country that seems to draw businesses and people away from Connecticut. The school was opened in the fall of 2009. Set on 65 acres, its 232,000 square feet were designed and built to serve as many as 1,500 students. Cox Mill cost $32.5 million to build, or about $140 per square foot.

• Oxford High School is located in a suburban New Haven County town. It was opened in the fall of 2007. Set on 50 acres, its 160,000 square feet were designed and built to serve as many as 800 students. Oxford High cost $47 million to build, or about $293 per square foot.

So it costs more than double the price per square foot to build a new, state-of-the-art high school in Connecticut than the equivalent in North Carolina. Not great news, to be sure, though we already kind of knew that. As to the exact reasons for the disparity, I don’t know the answers, however I’m sure that education, labor and construction experts here in Connecticut could explain it all away.

But I’m not really talking about our costs in comparison with other parts of the country, I’m talking about our costs here in Connecticut, period. And, of course, it’s not just about new school construction, either.

Perhaps the best non-school example of runaway costs is the emergency job-creation project known as CTfastrak, aka the New Britain Busway. The proposed 9.4-mile roadway was estimated in 1999 (not so terribly long ago) to cost $75 million. By 2005, the cost had risen to $337 million. Now that the busway is finally being built, it has become a $569 million project. As someone here at work blurted out upon hearing the numbers, “How does that even happen?” Indeed, how is it possible for costs to escalate so obscenely in such a short period of time?  

Another of my favorite it’s-only-taxpayers’-money-so-who-cares stories came with the rebuilding of three miles of I-84 in Waterbury and Cheshire a few years ago. The project called for inspectors to keep an eye on the work of the contractors who were rebuilding the roadway. Accordingly, the state DOT hired The Maguire Group of New Britain to conduct weekly inspections on the short stretch of highway. That Maguire never actually did the inspections is not to the point here—but the fact that the state paid the firm $6 million, or roughly $40,000 per week, for this simple, straightforward task should have been a source of outrage in and of itself.

A more recent example, one that hasn’t even broken ground yet, is a new commuter parking garage at the railroad station in Stamford. The project is slated to cost $35 million. The entire operating budget for Connecticut’s state government in 1927 was $30 million! Now, a parking garage in downtown Stamford costs significantly more. 

 

The $80 million remodeling of Staples High School in Westport (pop. 26,391) included wi-fi, world-language labs, TV/radio stations, greenhouse, culinary classrooms, black-box theater and more.

As you know, these are just a few drops in a very large bucket. It’s clear that, despite serious debt and deficit issues, no one in Hartford (legislators, governor, bureaucrats) feels any real pressure to hold down the costs of construction projects that involve state funds. No one steps in to say, “Wouldn’t a $50 million school do just as well as one that costs $60 million?” No one suggests that a cap of, say, $40 million, or even $30 million, be established for new-school construction.

(I’ve felt lately that a few million dollars should be peeled off the cost of each new school construction in order to establish parenting programs in the community where the school is being built—an investment that might do more good than all those atriums and architectural fillips combined.)

The other day, I was stopped at a red light on Route 6 in Bristol. I glanced to my left and saw the sturdy brick headquarters of The Dumont Group, an insurance and real estate agency. Above the front door of the modest building, I noticed carved into the lintel “Farmington Avenue School.” It was an old school building, no doubt a neighborhood grammar school, now finding a new and useful life.

It would be almost impossible for me to describe the difference between the unassuming building I saw in Bristol that day and the architects’ renderings for some of the new schools going up in Connecticut. The disparity led me to the conclusion that the no-nonsense Farmington Avenue School was about learning, the lavish new schools seem to be about something else—let’s call it happiness. And, as we all should have learned by now, that’s something money just can’t buy.
 

The Tip: Intervention Needed

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