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10 Countries’ Outrageous Boondoggles

by Gary Pullman
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The word “boondoggle,” meaning an extravagant and useless project, is derived from the Boy Scouts’ practice of “boondoggling,” or braiding and knotting colorful strands of plastic and leather to make bracelets and other items.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. Works Progress Administration began paying out-of-work educators to teach disadvantaged children to craft decorative items from discarded materials. In 1935, the New York Times reported that federal dollars were used to finance the children’s fashioning of these boondoggles.

The term took on political overtones when Republicans, disgruntled with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, used the frivolous-sounding term to refer to wasteful spending on public make-work projects. Today, the word remains popular as a means of mocking dubious undertakings and expenditures by the governments of various countries.

Related: 10 Bizarre Failed Military Experiments and Projects

10 Japan’s Great Tsunami Walls

Japan’s 400 Kilometre Tsunami Shield

As Irish Times contributor David McNeill writes, a 2011 earthquake beneath the Pacific Ocean produced “towering waves” that devastated Koizumi, Japan. Four drowned, and almost all the other 1,800 residents of the coastal town were swept away.

To prevent future such catastrophes, government officials announced hundreds of sea walls and breakers would be built to protect “the three worst-hit prefectures,” and many other such barriers would follow. The projects would cost a total of €6 billion, but, as a result, residents along the 8,699 miles (14,000 kilometers) of Japan’s 21,748-mile (35,000-kilometer) coastline in need of “tsunami protection” would be secure from the death and destruction that had befallen Koizumi’s inhabitants.

Despite its noble purpose, the undertaking was criticized. Detractors pointed out that previous similar efforts had had mixed results. The barriers could even lull residents “into a false sense of security,” feared Hiroko Otsuka, who “grew up near Koizumi.”

Otsuka’s concerns about the massive project are based on her mother’s and brother’s deaths during the 2011 flood. Had they fled to the top of a hill behind their house instead of taking refuge behind the sea wall, they might have survived, she believes. Like others, Otsuka thinks that the idea of building barriers against tsunamis should be reconsidered.[1]

9 Spain’s Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences In Valencia

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences complex was meant to encourage travelers’ visits. Despite €7.5 billion in expenditures, it has failed to do so. The project, Feargus O’Sullivan said, is “the gift that keeps on taking.”

The initial cost of the museum-cum-arts center quadrupled to €1 billion before its completion in 2005. Even then, it continued to cost the government money, both for a €4.5 billion “bailout” to the region in which Valencia is located and for repairs to the complex’s opera house. The structure’s metal shell buckles “as it expands and contracts” due to the city’s “daily temperature extremes.”

In 2014, inspectors found that “the thousand. tiny mosaic-like tiles” covering the metal sheets in the shell had to be removed, a task that will cost another €3 million. Santiago Calatrava, the architect who designed the complex, says that “poor construction,” not his design, is responsible for the structure’s problems, but O’Sullivan maintains that there’s plenty of blame to go around, including “failed or underperforming projects… kickbacks [and] an unnecessary airport nearby.”[2]

8 Saudi Arabia’s Farming Boondoggle

How Saudi Arabia is Turning it’s Desert into a Farmland Oasis

Writing for the New York Times, Charles J. Hanley notes that “the Saudi government could describe agriculture as ‘one of the kingdom’s most spectacular achievements.’ But the spectacle has long since gotten the better of the achievement.” The Saudi government has subsidized $13 billion worth of “overpriced crops” and dumped “mountains of grain” in the desert to rot, all so that it could pose as “a desert oil state in the unnatural role of wheat exporter.”

Although oil-rich Saudi Arabia can replace the money wasted on subsidizing farm crops, it cannot replace the water that the crops require. This reality has caused the Saudis to quit trying to farm their four million acres of desert “farmland.” Cattle have been suggested as an alternative to wheat, but the need to “green feed” the livestock gives even the optimistic Saudis pause. As Agriculture Minister Abdullah bin Moammar concedes, such a project “could get out of control.”[3]

7 Germany’s Renewable Energy Boondoggle

Why Germany isn’t as green as you think

In 2002, Germany decided to “phase out nuclear power,” Rick Mills reports. Eight years later, Chancellor Angela Merkel extended the use of the country’s nuclear reactors due to the nation’s anticipated inability to supply sufficient power by renewable energy sources alone. Due to politics, though, Germany cut the availability of electricity by 40% overnight while planning to eliminate the rest of the supply by 2022. A year before the deadline, the country shut down three of the six plants that remained operational.

As predicted, renewable energy sources could not produce the power supply the country needs, and energy prices spiked sharply. As a result, Germany’s $16 billion go-green boondoggle failed, and the country had to return to its reliance on coal and nuclear energy.[4]

6 England’s Car Parks

Parking lots are everywhere and nowhere

In England, millions of pounds have been spent on parking garages and lots that few drivers use. According to the British Parking Association, there are between 17,000 and 20,000 car parks across the country. Some are multi-story (garages), while others are simply “surface” lots.

Some car parks have attracted “anti-social behavior,” an online Guardian article reports. Abbey Walk in North East Lincolnshire is one such location. The county’s council has requested ₤1.54 million to fund a “refurbishment programme.” Communities hope to cash in on the massive boondoggle by repurposing the car parks as shopping centers, cultural or performance centers, or office spaces, but it remains to be seen whether such conversions will pay off since online shopping and “out-of-town retail parks” have already taken a toll on stores and other businesses located in the city centers.[5]

5 Mexico’s Mayan Train

Mega Train Cuts Through Mexican Jungle But Could Boost Tourism | True Cost | Insider Business

As an online Nation article states, critics are concerned about Mexico’s $20 billion Mayan train. Nevertheless, having prioritized the inclusion of the country’s Indigenous peoples, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is committed to the construction of the 900-mile (1,448-kilometer) railroad that will run “through southeastern Mexico… promoting Indigenous history and culture to tourists.”

Part of the train’s route passes through the country’s 3,000-square-mile (4,828-square-kilometer) Mayan forest’s Calakmul biosphere reserve, which is “home to an archaeological jewel: the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul.” The region is experiencing a prolonged drought, and some question the wisdom of introducing 8,000 tourists per day to the area despite the government’s promise of a new aqueduct.

Like their conservationist and academic allies, many of the Indigenous people who are supposed to benefit from the train call the project “an act of war,” fearing that it will “devastate southern Mexico’s ecosystem [while triggering] unsustainable development and further [marginalizing] the communities living there.” Instead of honoring and including Mexico’s Indigenous peoples, the Mayan train seems to have alienated and angered them.[6]

4 China’s Three Gorges Dam

World’s biggest dam: China’s engineering masterpiece or environment disaster? | 60 Minutes Australia

Chinese government officials ignored scientists’ advice not to build the massive hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam. Only after the dam—the largest in the world—was completed, to the tune of $24 billion, did the officials admit that the scientists’ predictions of landslides and the “altering [of] entire ecosystems,” among other “serious environmental problems,” might have resulted from the dam’s construction.

Although champions of the project had envisioned the dam as “a major source of renewable power for an energy-hungry nation,” able to produce 18,000 megawatts of power, the result of the building of the dam has also included “less rain, drought, and the potential for increased disease,” according to tropical medicine specialist George Davis. In addition, in June 2003, a rock slide occurred, killing fourteen people, and dozens of landslides have taken place, one of them burying a bus and “killing at least 30 people.” The worst, experts fear, may be yet to come.[7]

3 Canada’s 407 Express Toll Road

The Highway 407 Fiasco: How a Big Business Deal Turned Sour

Canada has had its share of boondoggles, including, Benjamin Hunting writes, “a bridge too far, an airport in the middle of nowhere, [and] a boat that won’t float.” One of its more expensive wastes was the 407 Express Toll Road. Construction began in 1987 and was finally completed in 2001 at the cost of $3.1 billion, which was reduced to $1.6 million, the government claimed, by allowing a “private consortium” to lease the road for ninety-nine years. The deal didn’t include the $100 billion paid to expropriate the land through which the highway ran.

The company leasing the highway upped the toll to the extent that drivers, especially in commercial trucks, opted to sit in traffic on Highway 401 rather than use the toll road. Ironically, as Hunting notes, “a highway intended to ease congestion was now actually causing it, and toll rates continued to rise.” To add insult to injury, in 2019, SNC-Lavalin Group, one of the partners in the toll road’s lease, sold 10.1% of its holdings for $3.25 billion, “valuing the entire operation at a whopping $30 billion [or] 10 times the price paid” to the Ontario government.[8]

2 USA’s Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

CBS takes rare tour of test tunnel under Yucca Mountain

The cost to build the U.S.’s Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository has soared to $38 billion, including its construction and the decades-long political fight between parties who endorse the opening of the site and others who oppose it. Located near Mercury, Nevada, within a hundred miles of Las Vegas, the repository would hold the 88,000 tons (79,832 metric tons) of nuclear waste that the country’s eighty nuclear plants have produced during their years of operation. A $19 billion, five-mile (8-kilometer) tunnel, dug in 1987, leads into the bowels of the mountain, but the fight for the site’s use continues.

Scientists express concern that the waste could contaminate underground water, endangering local farmers, a threat that the Department of Energy’s William Boyle told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti was “manageable.” Nevada’s U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto added that the railroad cars carrying the spent radioactive fuel would travel through the heart of Las Vegas on their way to the repository.

While the debate rages, nuclear waste continues to pile up across the country. It’s too bad that the government didn’t arrange, years ago, for the safe storage of nuclear waste that remains radioactive for thousands upon thousands of years.[9]

1 Australia’s Submarine Purchase

Australia scraps French submarine deal

In 2011, Australia’s federal executive government, aka the Turnbull Government, purchased a dozen French Shortfin Barracuda submarines. As John Menadue points out, the initial cost was $50 billion. This outlay was expensive, but it was only the beginning since the subs’ “design and pricing” occurred in an unprecedented, virtually “competition-free environment,” and “buying from overseas suppliers” was prohibited.

There were strategic problems with the purchase, too. The submarines were intended for use in the South China Sea alongside U.S. submarines. There, they would “be contesting the waters with Chinese submarines.” The Chinese subs, like their American counterparts, were nuclear-powered, while the French submarines were not. What deterrence would the French subs be against the Chinese vessels, and, for that matter, would the U.S. Navy “want to operate alongside [Australia’s] conventionally powered submarines?” It might be more in the interest of Australia, critics argued, to use its newly acquired subs to patrol and protect Australia’s own shores.

All things considered, Menadue concluded, the over-priced purchase was a boondoggle that proved “bad for policy, bad for the [Australian] navy, bad for the taxpayer, and bad for the future defence of Australia.”[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen