Many states in the U.S. have taken on ambitious building projects with total costs far exceeding budgets and projections. Worse, many of these programs have cost taxpayers millions to billions of dollars in total.
That said, it's easy to call taxes wasteful and excessive. In reality, there are many good examples of what taxes pay for, from highways to schools, and power plants to ports. Click through to find out some of the best and worst ways the government uses the money it takes from your paycheck.
Bad Use: Alaska’s ‘Bridge to Nowhere’
Although funded by Congress and therefore paid for with federal taxes, the main proponents and effort to build Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" came from the state.
The "bridge to nowhere" was a proposed bridge to connect the Alaskan city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, where the Ketchikan International Airport is located. The original estimate for the entire bridge project was $230 million, according to Alaska Dispatch News. By the time of its cancellation in 2015, that estimate had ballooned to $450 million.
The "bridge to nowhere" earned additional notoriety due to a controversy of redirecting funds away from the project toward areas of Louisiana damaged by Hurricane Katrina. When Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed reallocating $453 million, which had been intended for the "bridge to nowhere" plus another bridge, to repair the I-10 bridge in Louisiana, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska strongly opposed. His opposition drew heavy criticism.
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Good Use: Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Bridge
In Minneapolis, the original I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, leaving 145 injured and 13 dead. In very little time, both federal and state politicians responded with pledges to rebuild the bridge.
Though the rebuilding effort was federally funded by Congress, the main driving force was a state politician — Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota. He chaired the House Transportation Committee that earmarked minimum $250 million to replace bridge, which was then passed unanimously.
The St. Anthony Falls Bridge is a great example of government spending at its best. The new bridge was completed three months ahead of schedule due to efficient project management. Construction also finished within its $234 million budget, too often a rare thing with projects involving federal government spending.
Bad Use: Alabama’s Northern Beltline
Maintained by the Alabama Department of Transportation, the Northern Beltline is a 52-mile-long highway with six lanes. Approximately $5.4 billion is being poured into this project to make regions in Birmingham more accessible. The roadway is also expected to help lessen the burden of traffic. Funds are being provided by the federal government at this time.
Construction began in February 2014, and according to the project's official website, the first phase of the project was set to be completed in the fall of 2016. The entire project is estimated to be finished by 2054.
ALDOT has considerable flexibility in how it allocates federal money toward state projects. The fact that ALDOT continues to fund the Beltline over other projects is one of the main sources of controversy. Another source is the project's long timeline, as residents feel that 35 years is excessive.
Good Use: Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project
The Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project is a 23-mile extension of Washington, D.C.'s current Metrorail. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is building the system in two phases. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is the body that operates the rail system.
The Dulles Corridor Metro Project provides some major benefits to the region. First, the new line which opened on July 26, 2014, connects important commercial and residential hubs: East Falls Church with Tysons Corner and Reston, Virginia's largest employment centers, with downtown Washington and Largo, Md., according to the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project website.
Second, the Dulles rail extension will provide a direct link between the growing Dulles corridor and D.C. Commuters now have a one-seat, no transfer ride between these two destinations, and the extension includes 11 new stations. Funding for the project is also distributed among multiple sources, including federal, state and county sources of capital, as well as money for tolls.
Bad Use: Denver FasTracks
FasTracks was a voter-approved initiative passed in 2004 that includes 122 miles of commuter rail and light rail tracks, as well as 18 miles of bus rapid transit, across eight counties in the metro Denver area of Colorado. With 57 new stations being added, this is the largest passenger rail expansion project in America, according to the FasTracks website.
Unfortunately, there isn't enough funding to complete the project as originally promised by the Regional Transportation District (RTD). About $5.5 billion has been invested so far, but the heavy-rail line that was supposed to be built for Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder and Longmont, Colo., is projected to cost over $1 billion. The funding might not be available until 2042, according to Colorail.org. And according to the Denver Post, RTD will hit a financial wall sometime in the next 10 years to 12 years, leaving taxpayers footing the bill for what seems like a fruitless transportation project.
Good Use: Massachusetts’ Public School System
If there's anything Americans know, it's that the cost of an education is expensive. For Massachusetts, funding its education system is baked into the budget.
Many people, institutions and publications, such as U.S. News, rank Massachusetts' public school system as one of, if not the, best school systems in the country. For example, only 2 percent of its high school students drop out, and its students' math and reading scores frequently rank among the highest in the country and even internationally, reports The Atlantic.
The origins of Massachusetts' high-quality education system date to 1993. State officials wanted to raise performance across the board and, to do so, implemented higher standards and a strict system of accountability. By the turn of the millennium, Massachusetts had doubled funding for public education versus its budget in 1993.
Massachusetts sets a good example when it comes to public expenditure on education. For example, Massachusetts spends 7.3 percent more state and local money on individual students in low-income districts than in high-income districts. Including federal money, Massachusetts actually spends 14.8 percent more on lower income students, according to Education Week.
Bad Use: Washington’s Big Bertha
Bertha, a tunneling machine enabling the replacement of an above-ground highway in Seattle, is the largest machine of its type. The tunnel is meant to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, allowing access from nearby CenturyLink Field north toward the Space Needle, according to the New York Times.
Tunneling began July 30, 2013, with an original opening day estimate set for the end of 2015, according to the Seattle Times. Concerns of instability have plagued the project since a 2001 earthquake revealed seismic vulnerability, according to The New York Times. Before work began, politicians from both the local and state levels argued against the project. They predicted issues with the tunnel, and now there is uncertainty over who will pay for the cost overruns associated with the project.
Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contractors heading the mining of the project, are still working on completing the tunnel. The original project budget was set at $3.1 billion, which includes the $2.1 billion tunnel, but costs of completing the project vary from time to time.
In good news, the Washington State Department of Transportation reported that delays on the tunnel will only cost the state an estimated $149 million, which is less than overruns predicted by the agency back in July 2016. The bad news: Washington taxpayers are still the ones paying for the overruns.
Good Use: Oregon’s I-5 Woodburn Interchange and Transit Facility
Like the St. Anthony Falls Bridge, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had a $70 million project to rebuild a crowded, out-of-date interchange and completed it a full year ahead of schedule. On top of that, Oregon's I-5 Woodburn Interchange and Transit Facility came in under budget through innovative and automated techniques.
The project modernized the interchange, cutting congestion with a wider bridge, plus more lanes to handle over 36,000 vehicles and new ramps for better access to the I-5.
ODOT tapped several sources for funding, including local funds, funds provided by Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, federal earmarks as well as Jobs and Transportation Act funds.
Bad Use: Texas Superconducting Super Collider
Like Alaska's "bridge to nowhere," Texas' Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was funded by the federal government. But also like Alaska's boondoggle, Texas as a state is responsible for much of the wasted tax dollars. Texas personalities, such as Speaker of the House Jim Wright, and institutions, pressed to build the structure in quiet Waxahachie, Texas, according to the Dallas Observer.
In 2012, the Higgs boson, a particle long predicted by modern physicists, had finally been observed at a supercollider in Switzerland. A massive project had already been in the works to build a supercollider in Texas. It would have been capable of generating 20 times more energy than any machine at the time, and it would have had five times the energy of today's collisions at the Large Hadron Collider, according to Scientific American.
The SSC was designed in the early 1980s and approved in 1987. The original estimated cost was $4.4 billion, but by 1993, that figure had increased to at least $11 billion. Congress canceled the project on Oct. 21, 1993, but not before more than $2 billion had been spent, with the state of Texas spending $400 million. Only around 20 percent of the total work had been completed.
Good Use: South Dakota Retirement System
Many U.S. states are facing pension crises, which is making retirement far more difficult for Americans. According to Forbes, the estimated amount of "unfunded liabilities" — aka pensions that have insufficient funds — that state and local government pensions face is a staggering $5 trillion.
However, there are states that have navigated the pension crisis, with South Dakota being the most notable. The South Dakota Retirement System manages retirement plans for public employees. South Dakota is the No. 1 state in the country for allocating more than enough money to pay its retirement pensions.
Bad Use: California’s High-Speed Rail
Southern California is known for its horrendous traffic. A proposed bullet train seeks to solve that problem. The trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco that normally takes six hours by car could take less than three hours on a 220-mph train.
Future plans involve expanding the number of stations to San Diego and Sacramento, allowing residents to travel between cities for work. It sounds like a dream come true for many Californians, but this high-speed rail might not be going anywhere.
Construction on the first 29 miles began in January 2015, seven years after a $10 billion bond package was approved by voters, according to the Mercury News. The initial projected cost of $33 billion has turned into $68 billion, making it the most expensive public works project in the U.S., according to the Los Angeles Times.
Lawsuits over land use filed by environmentalists, farmers and residents near the proposed rail's pathway have delayed the project. As of February 2015, only $26 billion of funding was accounted for, and private investors remain the project's main hope.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the California bullet train could deal even more damage to taxpayers' wallets, potentially costing 50 percent more than estimated, equal to about $3.6 billion more. To make matters worse, that estimated overrun only covers the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposedly the easiest stretch of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Good Use: Washington’s Renewable Energy Policies
Washington has some of the most affordable electricity in the country. The main reason: Hydroelectric power comprises more than two-thirds of the state's electricity production. In fact, Washington has such large reserves of energy that it is a major electricity exporter, supplying electricity to several other states, including California.
In terms of solar energy, Washington also utilizes tax dollars effectively through a solar power incentive program. Washington's solar incentive program — Washington State Cost Recovery Incentive Payment Program — began in 2005. The program has proven a major benefit to the state, allowing for redirecting millions of dollars in taxes as incentives to homeowners and small businesses that have installed new solar systems.
According to a survey by Solar Washington, for each dollar the solar incentive redirects to PV (photovoltaic) system owners, the local economy gains back $2.46. Based on data collected reflecting business activity in 2013, from the $19.6 million the state pays out in solar incentives, an estimated $48.2 million returns to boost the local economy.