Letter From Washington

Welcome to Boondogglia

Anyone can build to last. Here’s how we build out here, when we’re not building jets and cyber-fortunes.

Why hasn’t the steel-bending, number-crunching competence of the nerds at Boeing and Microsoft rubbed off on those who build this state’s bridges, ferries, and nuclear reactors? Why is this whiz kid’s paradise also the world capital of boondoggles, the heartland of the misconceived, misdesigned, and misbuilt?

A tradition was born on Nov. 7, 1940, when “Galloping Gertie,” the 4-month-old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, writhed, snapped, and collapsed. Gertie would be hanging still, a marvel of suspension design, but for one rather obvious fault: Her stiffening girders–solid plates rather than the usual open trusses–caught the full blast in a high-wind corridor. Caught on film, the catastrophe has delighted generations of science students as a demonstration of oscillating wave motion.

The day after Gertie opened, so did the world’s longest floating bridge, which connected Seattle to its Eastside suburbs across Lake Washington. It took 50 years, but we finally sank this sturdy floater. During a summer spruce-up, its pontoon hatches were opened to catch the dirty runoff from hydraulic hoses that were being used to clean it. The hatches were inadvertently left open till November, when rainwater topped the pontoons and scuttled the whole show. These weren’t the only Washington bridges to which disaster paid a visit. In 1979, the Hood Canal Bridge to the Olympic Peninsula, which had supplanted the Lake Washington span as the longest floater, sank in high seas. (At least its pontoons were sealed.) The year before, the freighter SS Chavez wrecked the West Seattle drawbridge, forcing authorities to build the new high bridge that West Seattleites had long sought. It was whispered that locals had arranged for the Chavez’s 80-year-old pilot, Rolf Neslund, to ram the bridge. Neslund took whatever secrets he had to the burn barrel two years later, when his wife shot him and torched his remains.

W hen bridges fall, ferries still float. And if any state ought to know how to build them, it’s Washington, which operates the country’s largest ferry system. Even so, in the early ‘80s it built six god-awful “super-ferries” that required more than $5 million in corrective repairs. Their electronic propulsion systems tended to conk out, especially when braking, causing them to smash one dock after another. On dry land, government projects haven’t fared much better. In 1987, the University of Washington added a 100-foot-tall deck to the north side of its football stadium. It was designed by the acclaimed engineers behind many of Seattle’s commercial skyscrapers, all of which remain standing, thank you. But this was a state project: When a roof support buckled, the whole frame tumbled to the 50-yard line. Afterward, the recriminations flew: Was a bad weld to blame, or defective steel from Korea?

Four years later, Hammering Man, the 48-foot, 13-ton sculpture that today stands outside the Seattle Art Museum, slipped its chains at installation and hit the pavement. Could have happened anywhere? At least 20 other Hammering Men have been raised around the world, two taller than Seattle’s. None has tumbled.

While Microsoft programmers made the company billions, state agencies wasted millions on a failed computerization scheme. While local boy Craig McCaw built his cellular empire, Seattle’s transit agency procured a $5 million bus-radio system that never worked. Inspired as these follies are, they pale before the state’s most expensive boondoggle (and history’s biggest bond default): the $26 billion WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) cash-toss. Consider: France has built 60 cookie-cutter nuclear-power plants that work. WPPSS used three different designs to build five plants, one of which worked.

Why does this high-tech haven produce such jumbo turkeys? My guess is that Washington is the mirror image of the old Soviet Union, where only the military and space industries functioned. The Russians built the sturdy Sputnik, MiGs, and AK-47s, but they couldn’t make bras or toasters. In Washington, the private sector makes fine stuff and the public sector sinks bridges. Perhaps competence is a finite quantity, apportioned between the two sectors. When one gets too much, watch out for the other. WPPSS is the price we pay for Boeing and the Silicon Forest.

Not that the government can’t build anything right out here. Amid political and legal turmoil, it raised the Kingdome–Seattle’s biggest building and the world’s widest concrete roofspan–for a third to half the cost of other 1970s sports domes (about $160 million in today’s money). Granted, this home to Mariners baseball, Seahawks football, and everybody’s favorite tractor-pulls is plug-ugly inside and out. But its hyperbolic-paraboloid roof system is a renowned engineering triumph. It has weathered moderate earthquakes with nary a crack or untoward ripple, and looks as fit for the eventual big one as it did 20 years ago.

S o how has the county government that owns the Kingdome dealt with this unseemly achievement? By trying its best to undo it. First it cheaped out on maintenance, letting birds peck away the roof’s foam covering. Then it accepted an implausibly low bid to re-cover that roof, from an inexperienced contractor who blasted the old foam off with water jets. The resulting leaks dislodged four ceiling tiles, which in turn prompted a pull-out-the-stops rush to scour and re-cover the roof and ceiling before football season. A $5 million job grew to $67 million.

After readying the dome’s roof for the ages, the county and state decided to raze it and replace it with a $327 million roofless football stadium and a $414 million baseball stadium with a retractable roof. (I’m sure both projects will come in on budget, and that the retractable roof will work flawlessly.) Among the arguments advanced in support of knocking down the Kingdome was one that especially resonated with any child of Boondogglia: It had to be replaced because its roof was “falling down.” Ah, the things we’ll do to snatch disaster from the jaws of competence. Now can we get some of that Korean steel for the new stadiums?