Government Gone Haywire

Government Gone Haywire

© David Burton 2011

Government Red Tape


     The town of Winthrop in Massachusetts is basically a peninsula just east of Boston’s Logan International Airport. Its eastern shore is composed of a roughly 1-mile long beach that faces out into the Atlantic Ocean. Its beach is protected to some degree by the “Five Sisters” manmade breakwaters, that are located a few hundred yards offshore to reduce the effects of the regions famous “Nor’easters”. The protection afforded by these breakwaters are less than total and beach erosion occurs constantly, threatening parts of the town with storm-driven ocean water that washes in over the beach. A few decades ago, the beach was re-sanded with ocean bottom sand that was dredged and pumped onshore. Some 12 years ago, the need to once again re-sand the Winthrop beach became apparent and efforts were begun to obtain funding and permits to repeat the procedure.

     The current effort to replenish the sand on Winthrop’s beach began in 2001 with a review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). The MEPA review took more than five years, with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) proposing to take sand from an underwater, off-shore site. The proposal for the permit called for dredging up sand 8 miles offshore and pumping it or hauling it by barge to the shore because it would have taken years to truck the sand through the only two roads that provide access to the town and through the town's narrow residential streets.

     By 2006, all state and local permits were in hand and the project was ready to start. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps of Engineers stopped the project dead in its tracks, refusing to allow the DCR to take sand from the underwater, off-shore site, contending that the project would disturb the ocean bottom and a lobster habitat. So, in April of 2008, The US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had denied the state a permit to dredge sand from the ocean bottom to restore the eroded shoreline, dashing the hopes of residents who have blamed erosion for flooding problems in the area. An appeal of that decision was denied in early 2010. So, after some 9 years, it was back to the drawing board.

     In a written statement, the North Atlantic Division commander of the Corps, said that the decision was made "due to public interest factors and the availability of less environmentally damaging alternatives." One may want to interpret this as caving in to the demands of tree-hugging environmentalists. While the alternatives might be environmentally less damaging, the costs would be higher, the impact upon the residents of Winthrop and surrounding communities more severe and the subsequent delays could have potentially deadly consequences in the event of a major storm.

     In a previous settlement reached between the state and the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, which strongly objected to the project based on the possibility it would threaten lobster and other species, the state agreed to a one-time-only use of the dredging site; that there would be no dredging of the area for 15 years afterward; a moratorium on overall ocean floor dredging for five years, and to commit to a $250,000 lobster monitoring study in the area. Apparently, this agreement was inadequate for die-hard environmentalists and bureaucrats in the Corps of Engineers.

     As of 2008, the state DCR had been trying to get approval for the dredging for nearly a decade. The National Marine Fisheries Service office in Gloucester, which was advising the Corps, objected, based on concerns about the impact to a habitat "essential to the survival of cod and other species." Never mind the concerns of the residents of Winthrop living near the beach that worried about the possible loss of life and property from storms that could flood their homes and businesses.

     Winthrop Beach area residents have blamed the beach erosion for a string of flooding problems over the years. A one-year independent study from 2004 to 2005, commissioned by the state Division of Marine Fisheries, which opposed the project, concluded that the dredging would not have a permanent negative effect on sea life. Apparently such a conclusion is irrelevant to environmental zealots, their adherents and the bureaucrats that are involved. (Ref. 1)

     Now, in 2011, a new proposal has been put on the table. This new proposal calls for trucking some 650,000 cubic feet of sand and gravel into Winthrop from an abandoned highway embankment some 4 or 5 miles outside the town. Trucking in this sand “was an option that the Department of Conservation and Recreation officials were hoping to avoid because of high costs, significant traffic impact to the two roads leading in and out of Winthrop, and because the sand material would not be as good a match for the beach as sand from the ocean floor.” (Ref. 2)

     “That decision came nearly 12 years after state conservation officials started pursuing the dredging option, which they felt was the fastest and most inexpensive solution and would have had the least impact on communities.” (Ref. 2)

     Completion is presently estimated for December 2013, barring any additional protests and assuming that the necessary go-aheads can be obtained from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, along with orders of conditions from the two cities from which the sand will be taken and though which the trucks must drive. The state conservation department estimates the trucking option will cost $37 million, compared with the estimated $25.8 million for offshore dredging. Dump trucks will each carry 17 cubic yards of sand into Winthrop on one of the two only roads into/out of town between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. each weekday at a rate of 130-170 trips per day for approximately two years. Doing the math, we find that the 650,000 cubic yards of sand will take about 38,235 truckloads. Assuming 150 truckloads a day for 6 hours, this amounts to 1 truckload every 2-3 minutes over some fairly narrow roads and streets that were never intended to carry heavy traffic. As one resident of the Winthrop beach area said, “this is going to be disruptive and expensive.” (Ref. 2)

     Potentially, additional environmental obstacles to the sand restoration project may still arise in the future. “One marked concern will be avoiding the fragile habitats of the Piping Plover and Least Tern birds, both of which are endangered species. The two species are new to Winthrop Beach, but have taken to the area quite readily over the last two or three years. DCR said they would avoid marked habitats and would try to limit work during the times of year when the birds are most prevalent on the Beach. This sounds like the project may not be completed as early as anticipated.
     “There have also been some concerns by the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries for storm water runoff from the new sand into {some of the town’s} shellfish population.” (Ref. 3)


     Another example of interminable delays to a project involving the federal government and the state of Massachusetts is the Cape Wind Project, a project to site offshore wind generators in Nantucket Sound, just south of the Massachusetts and Cape Cod coastline. It’s a project that's been a glaring symbol of Not In MY Back Yard (NIMBY) and opposition to offshore wind power in general. In April of 2011 the Cape Wind Project, finally received approval from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), after some 10 years of regulatory and legal battles, brought on mainly by wealthy Cape Cod residents who opposed the project because it would impair their view of the Sound.

     While it's good news for wind advocates, it's worth noting that many green power projects like solar plants in the Mojave Desert and wind farms across the Midwest have encountered similar opposition. When you do something that impacts large amounts of land, many people have an interest in stopping or shaping the project.

     According to BOEMRE, the project, first put forward in 2001, went through "an unprecedented level of environmental and regulatory analysis" and "a thorough review of environmental impacts," including impacts on birds, fish, marine mammals and sea turtles. Some would interpret this to mean an inordinate amount or bureaucratic red tape that resulted in a 10 year delay of a project designed to reduce atmospheric pollution and lessen American dependence of foreign oil. Others would say that birds, fish, marine mammals and sea turtles take precedence over human beings.

     Think a 10 year delay in starting a project of this importance is more than enough? Think again. In spite of the government approval, opponents of the Cape Wind Project warned backers of the wind farm not to "declare victory in a battle that is far from over" and reminded project backers that the project is still the subject of 11 separate lawsuits and appeals.

     So, the Cape Wind Project is finally on its way after some 10 years of bureaucratic delays and legal maneuvering. Not so fast! Just some 6 months after the announcement of the project overcoming its last hurdles and obtaining final BOEMRE approval, a federal appeals court shot down the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) official position that the offshore power project’s tall wind turbines posed “no hazard” to passing planes. The court remanded the FAA’s findings back to the agency in spite of the fact that the FAA had reviewed the Cape Wind Project for some eight years and repeatedly determined that the project did not pose a hazard to air navigation. This is yet another perfect example of “death by a thousand cuts”. The multi-year FAA study and its report should have ended the issue of safety to air navigation. Who is better qualified to determine air safety than the government’s own impartial Federal Aviation Administration that is charged with maintaining air safety? - certainly not a federal appeals court and not the biased opponents of the project.


     On the George Washington Parkway, there’s a small bridge that spans an inlet of the Potomac River. In January of 2008, the Federal Highway Administration began reconstruction of the bridge. Completion was scheduled for February of 2010 – some 24 months later. Remember, this is a reconstruction – not the construction from scratch of a new bridge. By August of 2010, the reconstruction work was not completed and completion was estimated to be June of 2011. “That’s 42 months to finish a bridge that doesn’t rise more than 30 feet over the water.” (Ref. 4) The project is also $2-million over budget!

     In 1941, the largest office building of its time, the Pentagon, was built in just 18 months! Something has gone terribly wrong with American government in the last half century. Why does it take “more than twice as much time to reconstruct a small bridge than it took to build the world’s largest office building more than half a century ago”? Our “government has unlearned how to build big projects fast.” Today, projects “have to get clearances from environmental agencies and then prepare for the lawsuits that in our time are inevitably launched by environmental advocacy groups.” Today, the Pentagon probably couldn’t be built because an environmental advocacy group would take the government to court to protect some newly discovered endangered species that they would find in the mud flats upon which the Pentagon is located. A half century ago, the planners and builders of the pentagon “didn’t have to engage in endless negotiations with state and local agencies.” Today, “big government has become a big, waddling, sluggish beast, ever ready to boss you around, but not able to perform useful functions at anything but a plodding pace.” (Ref. 4)


     Another example of the government gone haywire is the proposed construction of a new eastern span for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. After the policy decision was made to replace the eastern span of the bridge, it should have been only a series of technical details to carry out the construction. Instead, the original design met with opposition from local community activists and elected politicians. Subsequently, a new design was commissioned and an environmental impact study was conducted. Then, not surprisingly, costs were found to have escalated over the original estimated. As a result, the project that was scheduled for completion in 2007 will not be finished until 2012, assuming current estimates are correct and there are no more unexpected events. (Ref. 5)


     In a paper titled Implementation; How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It’s Amazing That Federal Programs Work at All by Pressman and Wildavsky in 1973 and reviewed by Shannon in 2005, we find that little if anything has changed in terms of governmental bureaucracy and red tape creating intolerable delays to programs and/or causing program costs to spiral out of sight. The causes of these problems are analyzed in the Pressman and Wildavsky paper.

     The Pressman and Wildavsky paper documented the attempted implementation of a policy, begun in 1966, intended to employ the “hard-core” unemployed African-American population of Oakland California through a series of public works and federal business loans. The federal government’s Economic Development Agency (EDA), the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland obtained some $25 million for the program. BUT, there was one big caveat: each employer who wished to receive an EDA business loan or lease a facility financed by EDA would have to draw up an employment plan specifying how these companies would hire the long-term unemployed African-American residents of Oakland. So began the red tape. To aid in achieving the stated goal, other local, state and federal agencies were bought in to create a training program to build up the qualified labor pool. In other words, more bureaucracy was brought to the feeding trough.

     Everything looked positive at it’s inception: the policy was formulated, the overall goals were agreed to, the public work projects were started, and the employment plan was in place. However, some 4 years later, by 1970, most projects were still incomplete, the training program never really started, and the business loan program was a complete failure. In addition, the moderate amount of jobs created often went to workers other than the targeted population.

     What happened to the Oakland project in 1966-1970 is a not an atypical example of what all-to-often happens to government projects when there are too many fingers in the pie. We allow too many bureaucrats, agencies, politicians, and special interest groups to get involved and to ruin any chances for success. For example, federal and state officials involved in developing the employment training plans did not place a high priority on a timely completion of the public works projects; they were only concerned that the employment plans comply with the appropriate regulations. In other words, the piece of paper meant more than the actual result. Also, the Small Business Administration (SBA) concerned itself with the purely financial aspects of the loans that it oversaw, rather than the end goal of hiring unemployed minorities. The SBA gave no leeway or expediting of applications to firms that may have had excellent potential for hiring the long-term unemployed African- Americans. As Pressman and Wildavsky said, “These conflicts inevitably cause delay, and in many cases, delay is as good as defeat.”

     As the number of parties involved grew, the number of expected decision points in the program also grew. Even with a high probability of succeeding at each expected decision point, say 90%, it takes a very small number of expected decision points to reduce the probability of achieving program success to virtually zero. For example, with a 90% likelihood of succeeding at each expected decision point, a program with 50 expected decision points has only about 0.5% likelihood of being successfully completed. Moreover, the number of unexpected decision points rises as the program progresses, and, typically, there end up being more unexpected decision points than expected decision points.

     It should be appreciated that a “no” at any given decision point does not mean the death of the program. However, it does mean that time and resources must be spent renegotiating to achieve a “yes.” The result is delay, increased cost or a possible compromising of program objectives. All too often, programs get mired in bureaucratic gridlock and in the legal process, as opponents resort to court involvement to oppose, delay, and ratchet up the program costs. Bureaucratic infighting is another impediment to success as one agency takes umbrage with some other entity’s involvement in the program. The bureaucracy all too often imposes excessive rules and procedures, and as more and more players come into the picture, objectives frequently diverge. When objectives diverge, bargaining must begin. This leads to delays and even modification of the original program goals.

     The conclusions from the work of Pressman, Wildavsky and Shannon are that program administrators should restrict the number of participants, reduce the number of decision points, and that the administrators of the program should be aware of whether or not a program participant really cares about the program moving forward. Focusing on the most efficient way to create and implement a program may ignore the wants of various constituencies affected by the program, but accommodating to each and every demand of all the parties involved can only result in gridlock, delay, increased cost and even the demise of the program. (Ref. 6)


     Are we here in the United States doomed to forever continue on these spiraling paths of delays, ballooning costs and frustration? The answer is no. If – and it’s a gigantic if – outraged citizens can get our legislators to do what they are elected to do and pass laws that: 1) eliminate or greatly diminish the number of legal hurdles and roadblocks that a project must put up with, 2) drastically reduce the number of agencies and departments that are involved in reviewing and overseeing programs, 3) strictly limit the amount of time permitted to review and approve projects, and 4) prohibit additional reviews and lawsuits once a project is given approval to proceed. As is done in business, the military and as what should be done in government, all review, dissent and discussion should be encouraged and permitted at the commencement of the project and up to a clearly defined decision point. After that final decision point is reached, discussion should be terminated and the project should then go forward at all reasonable speed.

     So what can this type of process achieve? Consider the following examples.

     On April 29, 2007, a gasoline tanker truck overturned and burned, damaging the overpasses near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It appeared that the damage done to the MacArthur Maze, the freeway interchange at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge, was going to take months to repair. The experts at the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) thought this was the case.

     A week after the disaster, CalTrans invited highway contractors with a track record of alacrity to bid on repairing the worst-affected part. The C. C. Meyers Company looked over the damage and the plans and said they could do the repairs in 25 days — half the time allowed under the CalTrans contract. And they did. C. C. Meyers did this by making a decision, sticking by it and avoiding the interminable delays caused by multiple reviews and interference normally inherent in any publicly funded project.

     It didn’t hurt that CalTrans streamlined its process, clearing as much red tape as possible and drawing up a contract offering a $200,000 bonus -- with a limit of $5 million -- for each day the work was done in less than 50 days and levying a $200,000 penalty for each day after that deadline. Once CalTrans selected C. C. Meyers, the contractor was off and running with no further interference. One example of the streamlined process was that CalTrans agreed to let the work start while detailed construction drawings were being reviewed, instead of requiring the contactor to wait for detailed construction drawings to be approved.

     Perhaps the best example of what can be accomplished when the process is streamlined and bureaucracy essentially eliminated is the Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the Atomic bomb during World War II. Once the initial decision was made to proceed, the decision was not subject to incessant reviews. Once approved, the Manhattan project proceeded without bureaucratic oversight and interference. The number of parties involved was strictly limited, essentially because of wartime security concerns, meaning that interagency infighting was non existent. Environmentalists were totally left out of the process. Leadership was concentrated in one individual, General Leslie Groves. The result of this process was program success and the ending of World War II without the projected loss of hundreds of thousands or millions of American and Japanese lives that would have resulted from an American invasion of the Japanese homeland.

     America must discontinue the bureaucratic nightmare that has evolved over the past half century. The review process must be made finite. Dissent must be allowed up to a point in time, at which the decision must be made to proceed or to terminate. After that, dissent must be strictly limited. There must be unity of command. Firm time lines and budgets must be adhered to. There can be no overlapping authority, no bureaucratic infighting and no turf wars. Environmental concerns must not be the lone deciding factor in decision-making. Project authority must be focused and the chain of command clearly defined. The authority of courts to interfere once a project is approved should be strictly limited. We must avoid the cancer of requirements growth, of "wouldn't it be nice to have" and "let's add a few more bells and whistles." What was once known as "paralysis by analysis" has now morphed into "paralysis by analysis, review, litigation, turf wars, interference, and lack of leadership." This is one virus that must be totally eliminated.



  1. Army Corps denies permit for Winthrop beach restoration, Katheleen Conti, The Boston Globe, 23 April 2008.
  2. State has new plan to stem erosion, Katheleen Conti, The Boston Globe, Page NO1, 23 October 2011.
  3. Fresh Air Injected into Long-awaited Renourishment Beach Project, Seth Daniel, Winthrop Transcript, 6 October 2011.
  4. Bridge tells a bigger tale, Michael Barone, Boston Herald, Page 19, 19 August 2010,
  5. San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Wikipedia:, 7 November 2005,
  6. Implementation. Los Angeles:, J. L. Pressman and A. Wildavsky, University of California Press, Ltd, 1973


  11 November 2011 {Article 113; Govt_25}    
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