The Most Infamous PLA Job: Lessons from Boston’s Big Dig

2 June 29, 2010  State & Local Construction, Transportation & Infrastructure

Last week, a pair of editorials in Massachusetts newspapers questioned whether Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick learned anything from Boston’s experience with the government-mandated project labor agreement (PLA) on the Big Dig after he endorsed a new PLA mandated by the UMass’s Building Authority board of directors on future university construction projects (The Salem News, “Our view: Has Big Dig taught us nothing?” 6/22 and Gloucester Times, Editorial: Construction plans show state learned little from Big Dig,” 6/22).

The editorials point out that Patrick’s recent promotion of PLAs (at forums sponsored by Big Labor) in exchange for Mass. Big Labor Bosses’ support during November’s gubernatorial election makes little fiscal sense for Massachusetts taxpayers and stinks of political favoritism – especially considering the $22 billion Big Dig’s well-documented record of missed deadlines, cost-overruns, construction defects (including a motorist fatality due to a collapsed tunnel ceiling panel), and reports of union workers visiting methadone clinicssleeping and drinking heavily on the job.

The Big Dig, a PLA project, is affectionately known by locals as The Big Swig due to frequent drinking on jobsites.

Funded by federal and Massachusetts taxpayers, the Big Dig is the most expensive and infamous government-mandated PLA job of all time.

For readers not familiar with the Big Dig, its Wikipedia page says it all:

The Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in the U.S.[2]. Although the project was estimated in 1985 at $2.8 billion (in 1982 dollars, US$6.0 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2006[update]),[3] over $14.6 billion ($8.08 billion in 1982 dollars)[3] had been spent in federal and state tax dollars as of 2006[update].[4]

A July 17, 2008 article in The Boston Globe stated, “In all, the project will cost an additional $7 billion in interest, bringing the total to a staggering $22 billion, according to a Globe review of hundreds of pages of state documents. It will not be paid off until 2038.”[5] At the beginning of the project, Congressman Barney Frank joked, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city than depress the artery?”[6] The project has incurred criminal arrests,[7][8] escalating costs, death, leaks, and charges of poor execution and use of substandard materials.

Of course the PLA isn’t responsible for all of the Big Dig snafus, but it certainly didn’t prevent these mistakes either.  Because PLAs are marketed to lawmakers and project owners as a tool to prevent these types of incidents, it’s critical that lawmakers do their homework and fairly evaluate whether PLAs actually live up to proponents’ promises of delivering a quality, on-time and on-budget project.

It’s clear Gov. Patrick hasn’t done his homework on PLA projects like the Big Dig, and apparently neither have other public officials.

The evidence against PLAs hasn’t stopped Bay State lawmakers like Gov. Patrick and Umass officials from attempting to mandate Big Labor-favoring PLAs on public works projects in exchange for construction union campaign cash and votes.

These officials should expect taxpayers, contractors and ABC chapters to hold them accountable for these special interest deals.

For example, in a 2005 effort to educate local and state lawmakers pushing PLAs on Massachusetts schools, the ABC Massachusetts chapter erected this billboard along the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester for drivers exiting the Big Dig’s I-93 tunnel.

Big Dig Car Wash

The billboard’s connection between Massachusetts school PLAs and the Big Dig PLA received considerable media attention.  As a result of the bad publicity, public officials were reluctant to mandate PLAs on public schools.

Additionally, in 2006 the City of Fall River, Mass., bid the Kuss school construction  project under a PLA. After attracting few bidders — with those providing bids coming in well above the projected budget – the city canceled the PLA and reopened the bidding process. Reports stated Fall River saved $5.8 million on total construction bids by removing the PLA and bidding the project using free and open competition. 

It was a real-world experiment measuring the cost of PLAs, – right in the backyard of the Big Dig, – and its results clearly demonstrate that PLAs cut competition and increase costs. 

A December 2006 report by the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) at Suffolk University, “Project Labor Agreements and Financing Public School Construction in Massachusetts,” reviews this case study, which supports BHI’s previous research on the effect of PLAs on Massachusetts school construction costs.

In addition, BHI’s peer-reviewed academic paper,  Do Project Labor Agreements Raise Construction Costs?  published by Bentley’s business school journal “found PLAs raise the cost of school building by between $12 and $20 per square foot, or by between 9% and 15% of total costs.”

When Gov. Patrick and other Massachusetts lawmakers talk about the benefits of government-mandated PLAs, ask them what happened with the PLA on the Big Dig. Or the PLA experiment in Fall River. Or BHI research that found that PLA school projects are more expensive than non-PLA schools.

If lawmakers give you the wrong answer, they haven’t learned their lesson from the Big Dig and need to hit the books.

Required Reading on the Big Dig

The Boston Herald: Dozing on the Dig: Idle hands raise ire
Channel 7 News WHDH: Hank Investigates: The Big Swig (pdf)
The Boston Globe: Fore! Score a Bogey for the Big Dig (pdf)
City Journal: Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig
Boston Magazine
: Confessions of a Big Dig worker

Wall Street Journal
opinion piece by Stephen Moore: You Can’t Big Dig Yourself Out of a Hole (pdf)
Washington Post: Minding the Cost of Boston’s Bid Dig

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2 Responses to The Most Infamous PLA Job: Lessons from Boston’s Big Dig

» Voting With Your Wallet: Are You Helping to Fund America’s Impending Bankruptcy? - Big Government August 30, 2010 at 4:38 pm

[...] always curried special favors from bought-and-paid for politicians (think Boston’s “Big Dig“), their influence was mostly limited to a politician or two from certain areas.  Until [...]

Voting With Your Wallet: Are you helping to fund America’s impending bankruptcy? | RedState August 31, 2010 at 9:49 pm

[...] always curried special favors from bought-and-paid for politicians (think Boston’s “Big Dig“), their influence was mostly limited to a politician or two from certain areas.  Until [...]

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