Doggling the Boon
“if we can boondoggle our way out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt
I’m pretty sure that boondoggles go back as far as people do. For example, it’s not hard to imagine a couple of Egyptians looking out at the Great Pyramid as it entered its 15th year of construction and one saying to the other, “You know, we all love Khufu, but isn’t it time someone put a lid on this thing?”
You’d probably hear the same sort of conversation at any number of historic construction sites.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon—“Gardens I can see, but hanging gardens—it’s an outrage! Who does Nebuchadnezzar think he is?”
The Great Wall of China—“They really believe this is going to keep out the Mongol hordes?”
And so it has gone through the ages (Easter Island idols, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Eiffel Tower, The New Deal), with indignant voices rising in opposition on all sides. Of course, boondogglery remains very much a part of modern life as well. With its dictionary definition—“a wasteful or impractical project or activity often involving graft”—you don’t have to look far to find plenty of fresh examples.
In fact, all you have to do is turn to page 17 of September's Connecticut Magazine for the story of a salmon restoration project on the Connecticut River that cost taxpayers (federal and state) and utility ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 45 years, before finally being put out of its misery in July. That undertold story may have been Connecticut’s greatest boondoggle of the last half-century.
Or you can simply check out the local news to find the word regularly being used (often inaccurately) to describe projects and situations all over Connecticut. It’s recently been employed by critics of a proposed trash-to-energy plant in Waterbury, a proposed biofuel plant in Suffield, several wind-power projects, ballot irregularities in Bridgeport, last year’s proposed state budget in Hartford, the Jackson Laboratory project in Farmington and, most prominently and vociferously, the $579 million busway (“CTFastrack,” the state DOT likes to call it), strongly backed by Gov. Dannel Malloy, that will, if all goes well, one day carry passengers by bus over a newly constructed, dedicated roadbed running between New Britain and downtown Hartford.
“I will continue to speak out against the busway boondoggle,” former Gov. John Rowland declared one day on his radio show. “This is the biggest waste of taxpayer money in Connecticut history.”
Given Connecticut’s 375-year history and Rowland’s own well-documented familiarity with questionable projects and graft, that’s quite a statement. It also doesn’t take into account the fact (well-known to Rowland) that governors, just as they are allowed to sprinkle a small number of unqualified cronies into the bureaucracy, are also entitled to a boondoggle or two during their time in office—even if it merely turns out to be a visionary project that no one understood at the time.
In the last few decades, we’ve seen Gov. Thomas Meskill’s “people mover,” an inflation-adjusted $25 million monorail designed to carry travelers between the parking lots and the terminals at Bradley International Airport. The project was ridiculed as “Tommy’s Trolley” and was so lambasted by his opponent, Ella Grasso, that after she won, she felt obliged to abandon the just-completed structure. It was eventually demolished, never having been used except for test runs.
Grasso herself was not a notable big spender, although she did enthusiastically oversee the introduction of instant scratch tickets and daily numbers, part of what some would consider an enormous lottery boondoggle that in 40 years has taken more than $7 billion out of state residents’ pockets and put it into the general fund—becoming in effect a boondoggle used on occasion to fund other boondoggles.
Gov. Bill O’Neill had a weakness for road projects in eastern Connecticut and also for the long-dormant Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, pumping millions into a hoped-for cultural renaissance along the Housatonic that has yet to take place.
Gov. Lowell Weicker’s love of tennis led to the construction of the Connecticut Tennis Center in New Haven, an inflation-adjusted $25 million investment that has never been used much more than 10 days a year.
As for Rowland himself, choosing one of his boondoggles is like looking into a just-opened Whitman’s Sampler and trying to decide on just the right chocolate. I suppose we have to go with the construction of the $57 million Juvenile Correction Center in Middletown, a project so thoroughly corrupt, and then so costly to operate ($774 per night per prisoner for the first three years!), that The New York Times’ account of it was headlined: “Blueprint of a Boondoggle.”
As for the New Britain-Hartford busway, four governors—Weicker, Rowland, Rell and Malloy—have to share in the credit for that. The idea first came to light in 1994, when Weicker was in office. It was subject to a major study in 1999 and received its first federal approval in 2000, both under Rowland’s watch. Final design approval came in 2006, when Rell was overseeing things. And now construction has begun under Malloy. Maybe they can all take the first bus ride together.
Whether the busway turns out to be brilliant or merely a boondoggle forever identified with Malloy remains to be seen. He has a ways to go still, and, as we speak, there are already a few other contenders vying for infamy. One that I’ve been keeping my eye on is the excessive cost of new-school construction in the state. Right now, there’s an $80 million high school going up in Bridgeport and a $70 million vo-tech school beginning construction in Waterbury. We are building temples, mostly to satisfy the whims of administrators and consultants, while still not effectively addressing the dysfunction that occurs inside them.
Boondoggle fans are also noting that Malloy has demonstrated an alarming penchant for giving millions of dollars in loans, grants and tax breaks as “incentives to grow jobs in Connecticut” to companies, such as ESPN and Deloitte, that appear to have had no intention of leaving.
So any account of Connecticut boondoggles must remain a work in progress. I haven’t even mentioned our state legislature, for example. What makes me think there could be an interesting story there, too?