Help wanted: waste manager

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Some years ago, when I lived in Massachusetts, I used to watch sessions of the state House of Representatives on TV. Andrew Natsios, then a Republican legislator from the suburbs, seemed to take up more than his fair share of face time, usually ranting about misplaced spending priorities and bloated budgets. He was a conservative on many issues, not just the fiscal ones, so, being a good Democrat, I often made nasty comments about his histrionic colloquies before turning him, and the TV, off. Please accept my apologies, Andy. You were right -- at least about the money. And when you finish your job up north, I hope you can come south for a spell.

Natsios recently was put in charge of what is known across Massachusetts as "The Big Dig," although its official name is the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project. It is one of the world's largest construction jobs, and it has now become one of its biggest boondoggles as well. Begun in the early '90s, the enterprise to tear down an elevated highway separating downtown Boston from its waterfront neighborhoods, and replace it with three miles of underground road, was supposed to be finished in 10 years at a cost of $2.6 billion. At this point, some nine years later, it is only half done, and the price tag is approaching $14 billion.

The first item on Natsios' agenda was to fire six lobbying, media-strategy and consulting firms from the project, saving $439,000 worth of "inessential" spending. His next step will be to sort through the payroll of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversees the project, to ferret out useless, overpaid or blatantly patronage positions. God only knows how much money has -- literally -- been thrown down a ditch, but Natsios will try and find at least some of it.

Oh, Andy, how we could use you in Central Florida.

You see, down here, we have Lynx, the region's mass-transit agency, which just wasted $45 million of taxpayer money on a flawed light-rail system that never got built, even though its "Light Rail Close Out Report," produced for the federal government -- by an "independent consultant" -- found the project to be "viable and within the schedule and budget." In addition to this highly equivocal assertion, the report rightly concluded that building and maintaining the system, without either owning the land or the tracks the system was supposed to run on, or having a dedicated funding source to support it, such as a specified tax revenue, would have been impossible.

So why, Andy, did some of our local politicians, the agency itself, and its own recently resigned chief, Leo Auger, continue to try and foist it upon a suspicious public? Could it be because light rail was really a gravy train for consultants, lobbyists and other greedy and unscrupulous hangers-on, including Mr. Auger himself, who routinely dined with staff members at taxpayer expense? Does this sound like anything you discovered while snooping around The Big Dig?

Or let's take the case of our 12.4 mile Osceola Parkway, a toll road linking Disney World with outlying and undeveloped areas of Osceola County. You'll really like this one, Andy. It seems that about 10 years ago, Osceola County commissioners and planners hired -- you guessed it -- a consultant to study the road's feasibility. For $40,000, URS Grenier, the firm in question, issued a report that predicted if the highway were built, it could double the county's tax base, generate thousands of new jobs and play host to millions of drivers a year.

Well, none of this has happened, of course. The original $150 million in construction costs, financed by a bond issue, was supposed to be reimbursed by highway-user tolls. It is now understood that there is little chance of that happening either, so it may end up costing local taxpayers $1.45 billion in interest payments over 60 years, on money that must be borrowed to repay the bondholders. Arthur Goldberg, the consulting firm's vice president, now admits their original numbers were way off, but opined that his company "certainly learned from the experience." Gee, do you think we could get Arthur to pay off the $1.45 billion a little at a time -- or at least return the 40 grand?

Well, anyway Andy, I know you have your hands full up there, but if you ever do get down to these parts, look me up. I'm sure we can find a place for you. There certainly seems to be enough pandering, padding, pilfering, petty larceny and plain old stupidity to go around. As for me, I had been planning a trip back north, but with The Big Dig still unfinished, I don't think I'll be driving about Beantown any time soon. Maybe in another 10 years or so, when you can get from Somerville to Southie in under an hour. It'll be done then. Right, Andy? ... Andy?

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