NEW YORK (
) -- Remember the good old days of buying something you knew was a bit out of your price range but enjoying the rush despite the newfound debt?
Yep, the years and even decades leading up to the housing crisis, credit crisis and latest recession were a dumb, covetous time. Unfortunately for some American towns and cities, there's still a price to be paid for those spendthrift ways.
The New Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland is just one example of projects that have cities, towns and counties around the country aching from effort to get them done, pay for them or even justify them after the fact.
Federal Reserve data show that overall municipal bond debt was up to $2.9 trillion by the end of 2010. While final 2011 numbers haven't been released, $2.5 trillion of that 2010 debt was issued by state and local governments and is sticking around for the long haul.
The promise of revenue and the lure of shiny new stuff to play with was just a bit too great for some towns, cities and landowners to resist. It's only when those toys don't worked as advertised, come without batteries included or just make a big mess out of the surrounding area that most folks remember how high a price was paid and start grumbling about the bill.
We took a look around America and found 10 communities that bent over backward for big projects and just about had their spines snapped in the process:
Tug Hill, N.Y.
It's never a good sign when documentary crews come into your town looking to use it as a cautionary tale.
Yet that's the role Tug Hill has been assigned in the documentary
. Located in New York's Lewis County, where there are scant zoning rules and part-time local governments, Tug Hill is now home to the
that paid out $1.2 million in local taxes during its first year in operation and promised another $400,000 more in taxes each year. The farmers below, meanwhile, get $6,000 to $10,000 a year for each tower, while some residents get as much as $1,000 a year for the towers' effect on their view.
The 195 turbines stand on towers 400 feet high. Their blades spin at 150 miles an hour. As the documentary points out, however, such turbines can collapse and catch fire, and local fire departments are ill equipped to do anything about them. They throw off chunks of ice in the winter, cause sunlight to flicker during the summer and make a sound akin to airplane noise all year long.
The noise and view seem to be the sticking point for folks
. It's also driven up tax assessments in the area, which isn't sitting well with taxpayers. The windmills generate tax money for the community, but residents say they're not seeing reduction in taxes as a result. They're also not getting any of the power from the mills, which serve 100,000 houses in the surrounding area but none in Tug Hill.
At best, it's created a bit of a nuisance on the way to energy independence. At worst, it's divided a community. Still, there's a way it could be much worse:
Natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing (fracking)
In 2008, Houston-based
Cabot Oil & Gas
took an interest in the natural gas within the Marcellus Shale stretching from West Virginia to Western New York. In Dimock, Pa., in particular, it began paying farmers and other landowners from $25 an acre for their land in the early days to nearly $15,000 an acre now.
The plan was to drill for natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, which injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the earth at high pressure to break up rock formations and release the natural gas inside. In the 1,400-resident town of Dimock, however, that drilling led to the town's water turning brown, residents getting sick, wells catching fire and animals losing their hair.
A Cabot truck spilled 800 gallons of diesel fuel there in 2009. Later that year, 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid leaked from pipes into wetlands and a local stream, killing the fish. In 2010, Cabot was prevented from drilling within a nine-mile radius of the town.
The Department of Environmental Protection fined Cabot $360,000 and started delivering residents water after local well water was deemed tainted. Cabot stopped delivering water in November, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency's hand.
The agency is still testing, but has already found methane, arsenic, barium, antifreeze and manganese in local well water. Eleven homeowners are now suing Cabot, saying their water is still tainted.
Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tampa/St. Pete hasn't had a whole lot of luck building stadiums for its teams, existent and nonexistent.
Its woes date back to 1986, when the city decided to build a domed stadium in an attempt to lure a major league baseball team. It spent $130 million on what is now known as
Field without so much as a batboy willing to grace its cozy confines. The city tried luring the Chicago White Sox in the late 1980s, but succeeded only in getting the Sox a new stadium.
They then tried to lure the Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants. Nothing came of the former attempt, while the latter was blocked by National League owners. When Major League Baseball expanded in 1993, the area was passed over for Denver and fellow Floridians in Miami. It would sit empty until 1998, when the expansion team the league promised the city in 1995 finally materialized.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- now just the Rays -- made it to the World Series in 2008, but the stadium never quite hit the big time. Its capacity has dropped from 45,369 in 1998 to little more than 34,000 last year as the team tarped off sections to deal with flagging attendance. Even with those cutbacks, average home attendance was still just above 55% at 18,900 in 2011 -- a playoff year for the Rays. Though average attendance was higher during the World Series year in 2008 at nearly 22,300, that was only 52% of maximum capacity at the time. The peak average was just above 23,000 in 2009, but half-full is just about the status quo at the Trop.
Stadium in Tampa looks like a steal by comparison. Opened in 1998 at a public-borne cost of $168.5 million, the stadium has served as home to the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and to Super Bowls in 2001 and 2009.
That sounds great until you take into account that Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer is a billionaire businessman who likely could have paid for the whole facility himself. That may not have occurred to fans while the team was doing well in the late '90s and certainly not when it won the Super Bowl in 2002, but it's becoming a lot more clear now. Since Glazer started buying up shares of iconic English Premier League soccer club Manchester United between 2003 and 2005, the Buccaneers fortunes have taken an unfortunate turn for the worse.
By the time the economic crisis hit in 2009, fans were making it abundantly clear how they felt about the quality of the product at their stadium and the state of the team's management. The team didn't sell out a single game on its home schedule in 2010. Instead of exploiting an NFL loophole that allows the team to buy back tickets at a third of their price and give them to charity to prevent television blackouts, Buccaneers management passed and kept the whole home slate off the air. The blackouts continued into last year, when five of the team's seven games at Raymond James were blacked out.
Atlantic City, N.J.
Setting up Las Vegas by the sea sounds great, doesn't it? Only if someone else doesn't open another Vegas nearby.
We're not going to go into the entire history of Atlantic City casino gambling since it was legalized in 1976, its run as a substandard revenue producer for the state since that time or the gaping tale-of-two-cities disparity between the casino district and the rest of the decaying city.
What we will note, however, is that it's been a troubling time for the city since competition started cropping up. First there was big-budget "Vegas baby" redevelopment out in Nevada. Then came casinos in Connecticut. Then more in Pennsylvania. Then sports books in Delaware.
That doesn't even account for Atlantic City missteps including a $330 million tunnel for a Steve Wynn casino that never happened, a new casino at its end called the Borgata that went from star status to so-so once
pulled out and stalled projects at the now-destroyed Sands and the never-built MGM Grand Atlantic City. It got so bad that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered
Revel Entertainment Group
$261 million in tax credits just to finish a casino project that stalled when the company was sold by
Today, Atlantic City's "tourism district" has been taken over by the state. Casino revenue, meanwhile, fell from a peak of $5.2 billion just five years ago to $3.3 billion last year -- or little more than the $3 billion generated by Pennsylvania's gaming facilities.
Kansas City, Mo.
What if they built a sports arena and nobody played in it?
Kansas City stares at the answer to that question every day when it gazes upon the $276 million
. Built as a replacement to the 1974-vintage Kemper Arena, the Sprint Center lacks two essential items that aging facility once had: a National Hockey League team (the Kansas City Scouts called it home from 1974 to 1976) and a National Basketball League Team (Kemper hosted the Kings from 1974 to 1985 before they moved to Sacramento).
Sure, the Sprint Center's seen some Arena League action, a few big concerts, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's regional rounds in 2009 and the Big 12 Conference's Men's Basketball Tournament in 2008, 2009 and last year. But none of those events bring the hundreds of booked dates and millions in gate and parking revenue a home team does. The glass exterior's nice and the huge LED screen inside is lovely, but it's all one really expensive bridesmaid's dress.
That's exactly what the Sprint Center has been where the major indoor sports leagues have been concerned: a kind of hot bridesmaid overlooked for the lovely bride beside her. The city and facility wooed the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007, but only succeeded in getting that team a new arena in Pittsburgh just in time for a Stanley Cup run. There was a brief flirtation with the NHL's Nashville Predators in 2008, but it turns out Predators investors really like Tennessee. The New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings played a preseason game there in 2009, but even the Islanders' miserable arena situation in Uniondale couldn't pry them away. The NBA's L.A. Clippers, New Orleans Hornets and even the prodigal Sacramento Kings all tease, but Blake Griffin, Seattle investors and stubborn league ownership all leave Kansas City with compliments but no franchise to call its own.
A hotel room and car rental tax paid for its construction, but hasn't given visitors anything else to visit. The
Anschutz Entertainment Group
partnered with the city to build the place, but hasn't done much but cover operating losses since the building opened. Admittedly, it's pretty. We're sure it would look just as pretty packed on game day, though.
Get used to seeing digging equipment on this list. It's a costly little enterprise.
The plan to build the Port of Miami Tunnel connecting the McCarthur Causeway on Watson Island to the Port of Miami on Dodge Island was kicking around for nearly 30 years before being approved in 2007. The goal is to get heavy container trucks off downtown streets and push them to the city's fringes. The economy had different ideas, though, and the economic downturn threw the project onto the scrapheap until 2009.
The good news was that the tunnel's original $3.1 billion cost was pared down to $1 billion, with the county, city and state kicking in funding. Private-sector banks and financiers will also be responsible for much of the payment and upkeep during a 30-year public-private partnership.
The bad news: This project won't be finished until at least 2014 and it's already springing financial leaks. The city had a tough time coming up with its $50 million portion of the funding. Meanwhile, overruns started to look more likely last year, when one of the tunnel builders sought to tap a $150 million reserve fund to cover the unforeseen cost of grout.
There's also the question of who's going to be using the tunnel. The short answer is trucks from the port and port workers, but critics say that traffic's pretty light and that the project amounts to a tunnel that "nobody" is going to use. The city, county and state went out on a limb with this project, and while there hasn't been a whole lot of cause for alarm yet, another project in this list already has Miami port tunnel watchers wary.
In Hamilton County, Ohio, there's a lot more riding on Cincinnati Reds and Bengals games than some civic pride. The county alone shouldered the estimated $540 million burden of the Reds' Great American Ballpark and the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium. While the Reds' stadium stayed on budget and has done a good job of sustaining itself without much help, Paul Brown Stadium has become a burden that is breaking the county.
Originally billed as a means of generating jobs and revenue, Paul Brown Stadium came in $280 million over budget when it was completed in 2000. The final cost fell between $350 million and $555 million, depending on how much you value costs such as infrastructure and parking facilities, but Hamilton County assumed $1 billion in total debt by issuing its own bonds without help from other counties or the state.
Paying the debt alone will create a roughly $30 million budget deficit for the county this year. Add annual stadium costs to taxpayers that rose from $29.9 million in 2008 to $34.6 million in 2010 and sales tax revenue that's declined steadily since 2000 and it's a crushing blow, especially for local programs.
The county's juvenile court lost $13.4 million in funding from 2008 through 2010. Other youth programs were nixed altogether. A property tax cut that was part of the deal was rolled back last year.
If there's any doubt about Hamilton County residents feeling robbed by the deal, just check out attendance of late. The team has failed to sell out 10 of its past 16 home games, including six games during a playoff run this year.
Airport and rail line
Denver just loves itself some cost overruns.
Take Denver International Airport. One of the busiest airports in the world, its peaked architecture and automated baggage and solar energy technology made it a wonder among its contemporaries. It was also an economic disaster when it opened in 1995. Design changes, strikes and problems with its baggage system put it 16 months behind schedule and, at $4.8 billion, nearly $2 billion over budget.
Not surprisingly, the city's public transportation initiative FasTracks finds itself in a similar state. A comprehensive plan for light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit expansion throughout Denver, Aurora and Boulder, the project was supposed to cost $4.7 billion and be paid for by a sales-tax increase approved in 2004 and implemented the next year.
That just didn't happen. By 2007, the project reported a $1.5 billion overrun. That increased to $1.8 billion by 2010 and, by the time the economic downturn took its toll, finally expanded to $2.5 billion.
The Department of Transportation eventually kicked the project $1 billion to finish up a pair of light rail lines, but it's still nearly $2 billion short of what it needs to finish within the next decade. Under the current budget, the final leg of FasTracks won't be complete until 2042. The regional transit district in charge of the project is considering a ballot issue this fall for another sales tax increase. As overruns mount and rail plans are reconsidered, however, FasTracks is steadily drifting into the slow lane.
New Bay Bridge
Anyone unfortunate enough to see the Bay Bridge's upper deck on its eastern span collapse during the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 knew the bridge needed a replacement. They probably didn't expect it to be quite this expensive.
The first shock came when the only bid for the bridge's construction came in at $1.4 billion, or nearly double the initial $780 million estimate. There were design changes, political posturing and bureaucratic delays that pushed the start of construction to 2002. The bill only got worse as a botched repair on one of the bridge's eyebars resulted in more than two tons of replacement materials crashing onto the roadway in October 2009 and closing the bridge for six days.
The total cost eventually ballooned to $6.3 billion after nobody factored in the rising cost of construction materials or came up with a means of keeping costs under control. Bridge tolls soared, bridge closures abounded and patience wore thin, but the end is finally in sight.
The span is expected to be complete by Labor Day 2013. Oakland's NBA team, the Golden State Warriors, are so confident about its completion that they've incorporated the refurbished span into their new logo. It beats a taxpayer or commuter mascot shoveling money into San Francisco Bay.
The Big Dig
Contrary to popular belief, this project didn't involve the city of Boston digging a huge hole under the city and just throwing singles into it until it filled. It just seems that way.
The plan was simply this: Reroute the perennially clogged Central Artery that carried Interstate 93 through the city into a tunnel beneath it. It sounded simple enough when it was proposed and was put in simple terms when it was pitched to the public. It was going to be finished by 1998 at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion.
Mention that figure in Boston now and you're as likely to get a beer thrown in your face as you are to get a defeated, world-weary laugh. Absolutely nothing went right with this project and an overwhelmed Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was left to oversee a project way out of its element. There was a tunnel connecting Interstate 95 to the airport to consider, a bridge over the Charles River to build, a connection from Boston's Storrow Drive to I-93 to consider, underground walls made of concrete slurry to construct and countless other considerations.
History laughs at this kind of matchup. The project wasn't completed until December 2007 -- almost a full decade after its estimated completion date. Costs climbed to nearly $15 billion and will end up costing roughly $22 billion once interest is accounted for and the final payments are made about 30 years from now.
Boston's sports teams don't give it much reason to complain anymore, but the area still has the Big Dig's fallout to unite it in misery. The Rose Kennedy Greenway, a series off open-space parcels along the vacated Central Artery route, has been described as underutilized at best and a median strip at worst. The last organization to use it for any extended period: Occupy Boston.
Leaky tunnel portions, corroded light fixtures and substandard materials have plagued the roadways below. Never was this more apparent than in 2006 when a concrete panel over a ramp connecting Interstate 90 to I-93 collapsed and killed a motorist. The engineering firms that oversaw the project have paid upward of $450 million in restitution, but even that's not close to enough to pay the project's largest debts.
Perhaps most impressive is the outsized pressure the Big Dig's debt placed on a sector it shouldn't have affected at all: mass transit riders. The local mass transit authority was saddled with billions in Big Dig debt after the Turnpike Authority was merged into the state's Department of Transportation a few years back. Already going without rail extensions promised during the Big Dig, saddled with a bus rapid transit tunnel about a lane too small for its needs and struggling to maintain an aging fleet of buses and subway trains, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is weighing fare increases and service cuts just to plug budget gaps.
While it must be lovely for vacationers heading up I-93 to speed through the tunnels on their way out of town, the Big Dig is somewhat less enchanting for city residents stuck in a tunnel for three hours when their nearly 40-year-old Red Line train breaks down.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.