A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 12, 2000
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240; E-mail:Thomas.Voltero@hou.state.ma.us
BIG DIG OFFICIALS MUST KEEP THE PEOPLE "IN THE LOOP"
We should have known that something was wrong the minute the sign went up on Route 93 North that read, "Rome wasn't built in a day. If it was [sic], we would have hired the contractor." The sign was intended to poke fun at the temporary inconveniences caused by the project affectionately known as the "Big Dig."
What it really did, however, was cause virtually every English teacher in the Commonwealth to write in about the differences between indicative and subjunctive verb moods.
After taking these suggestions into consideration, the problem was eventually corrected. "Was" was changed to "were," and the reputation of the nation's largest transportation project was rescued- at least for the time being.
Now, Big Dig officials wish that grammatical errors were the only things wrong with this multibillion-dollar construction venture. It has been recently discovered that these officials have fallen short in yet another subject: arithmetic. Believe it or not, legislators had once been promised that the Big Dig would cost about $8 billion and "not a penny more." That estimate was increased to $10.8 billion. Now, however, project officials have predicted that the project will cost an additional $1.4 billion dollars.
Such a problem will certainly require more than changing a word or two on a billboard (or a refresher course on the abacus).
Misrepresentation has been on the mind of every legislator since the problem was revealed to us by executive branch officials. Our apprehensions crystallized last week during a special committee hearing in which members of the General Court questioned Big Dig officials about what led to this incredible oversight. The panel consisted of members from the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means, and the Joint Committee on Transportation. Among those giving testimony were Turnpike (and Big Dig) chief James Kerasiotes, Big Dig officials Michael Lewis and Patrick Moynihan, and Transportation Secretary Kevin Sullivan.
The panel questioned Big Dig authorities for over 7 hours in order to figure out not only what went wrong, but what was going to be done about this "black hole." What we discovered was that members of the Executive branch had been keeping the Legislature, the federal government, and the general public in the dark about the whole overrun. Although Big Dig Officials had known about the cost overrun for some time (and were obligated to immediately disclose this information), they had been silent until "all resources had been exhausted."
This is certainly problematic to legislators because we are supposed to play a part in the decision-making process, and ultimately have to answer to each inquiring letter or phone call. After all, we are the ones who are appropriating state revenues for this project, and we are the ones who will ultimately have to clean up the financial mess. Thus, it is important that the Legislature be "kept in the loop" about any new development since the Big Dig is an incredible investment of the Commonwealth's resources.
For this reason, the Legislature created the "Oversight Coordination Commission," which went into operation in 1997. Consisting of three state agencies, the Offices of the Inspector General (OIG), Attorney General (OAG), and State Auditor (OSA), the Commission was designed to be a centralized forum for communicating ideas and sharing information about the Big Dig. All three agencies, which answer to the Legislature, have combined their expertise and statutory powers to detect, prevent, and prosecute cases of waste, fraud, and abuse.
Individually, each agency performs a different function as part of the Commission. The State Auditor is responsible for auditing the finance and accounting systems of the project, overseeing change orders and contract designs, and publishing reports for the general public. The Inspector General is charged with monitoring contracts at construction sites, reviewing budget and finance plans, and investigating suspected criminal or civil infractions of the law. The Attorney General actively enforces laws and regulations, and deals with any sort of conflicts that may arise.
Together, these offices provide independent state oversight to safeguard the interests of the citizens of the Commonwealth. To strengthen this effect, senior staff members from each agency get together every month to discuss and coordinate matters of common concern. In addition, the Commission holds quarterly coordinating sessions with the House and Senate Chairpersons of the Joint Committee on Transportation and the Chairpersons of the House and Senate Committees on Post Audit and Oversight.
Theoretically, this operating structure should effectively safeguard against any kind of fraud, waste, or "runaway" expenses. Unfortunately, when complete information is not provided kept hidden from the public, it is impossible for the Commission to give accurate projections and advice. The blatant lack of communication regarding the Big Dig is not only improper since the Big Dig is a "public" project, but it closes out all key leaders from the decision-making process.
One legislator pointed out to Big Dig officials in the hearing that the Legislature has always played an important role in overseeing major projects and has effectively dealt with crises in the past. The implication was that if we had known about the cost overrun when Big Dig officials did, we could have worked together to find a proper solution. Certainly, we would have wanted to know what caused this error, but we would have been much more understanding of the situation.
The Big Dig is not the first project in history to surpass its cost estimate. Anyone who has remodeled a home knows that there are always "hidden" expenses that even the best of us cannot predict. But in the case of this gigantic public project, taxpayers' money is at stake, and as a result, everyone has a right to know how their interests are being served. Running a vital historic project without open and honest communication with the people of Massachusetts, and those who represent them, only makes a bad situation worse.