Bridge to Nowhere, Move Over

In the 1990s, the Bridge to Nowhere became the icon of governmental boondoggling. But now, that proposed $223 million bridge to connect remote Ketchikan, Alaska (population: 8,050) to remoter Gravina Island (pop. 50, maybe) — has serious new competition.

In an old limestone mine in Boyers, Pennsylvania, 230 feet underground, the federal government has stashed its most amazing living monument to paperwork, where some 600 people process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers — by hand, and on paper!

In those vast, somewhat spooky caverns, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management assembles, reviews and files away the roughly 100,000 annual requests from federal employees for their retirement benefits.

File by file, line by line, the cases wind their way through a process that often takes months to complete — on average, at least 61 days. By comparison, Florida’s retirement system takes 47 days, the California teachers’ retirement system takes 23; Texas takes only two.

But at least it hasn’t slowed down; it’s the same amount of time it took in 1977, according to a federal audit. Each average file processed costs $108, total spending on the retirement system has reached $55.8 million.

The reason it’s in an old mine rather than an office building in Washington is simply a matter of space. They just couldn’t find an office building or warehouse big enough to contain the mountains of paper.

It’s not that digitalization hasn’t reached this remote cavern of big government. It has, but it hasn’t helped. Within the government, at least those who knew the mine wasn’t a figment of Washington mythology have long lamented the situation — but have not been able to correct it.

During the past 30 years, administrations have spent more than $100 million trying to automate the old-fashioned process in the mine, but technology has been beaten back time and again by the daunting complexity of federal retirement rules.

The center’s workers must verify and pencil in the answers to an exhausting list of questions that will determine the final pension payment: What were the retiree’s three years of highest salary? Was the retiree a firefighter? A military veteran? A cafeteria worker at the U.S. Capitol? What about part-time service?

To be sure, the Office of Personnel Management is not alone in its failure to take advantage of the much-touted speed and efficiency of computerized recordkeeping. A recent study found that only 5 percent of large federal IT projects in the last decade fully succeeded. Of the rest, 41 percent wouldn’t boot at all.

But it’s not because there hasn’t been a will; it just seems there hasn’t been a way. Federal officials acquired technology they weren’t fully competent to operate, or they didn’t test what they were getting until it was too late (see Obamacare), or the labyrinth of government regulations proved insuperable. In many instances, giving up on mastering or fixing the technology, officials threw in the towel and resorted to the tried-and-true expedient of hiring more people to speed up the flow of paper.

As the Washington Post’s exposé of this outmoded system swiftly becomes public knowledge (thanks to electronic media), we expect demands from outraged senators and congressmen for an urgent probe of runaway federal bureaucracy.

They can hardly resist. Although less picturesque than the proposed bridge, the mine could nevertheless capture the imagination of critics of the federal bureaucracy like nothing else in the contiguous 48 states. It’s easy to picture a magnificent structure leading to a remote frozen location; yet there is also something captivating about a journey deep underground that reveals the relics of federal bureaucracy.

And whereas the Bridge to Nowhere never went anywhere — as Alaskan politicians who initially supported it took a quick exit turn once the media got hold of it — this egregious expenditure of taxpayers’ money already exists. It’s a tangible object for the scorn of the foes of big government.

But that’s the knee-jerk reaction. We wonder if a different reaction might not be appropriate. Instead of condemning it as an intolerable waste of taxpayers’ money, why not look on the bright side?

The Obama administration has struggled for over five years with discouraging unemployment rates. Here is an achievement in job creation: The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. The same could be done elsewhere in the government (though not necessarily underground).

In any case, there is a moral to the story, as well. Computerization has turned out not to be the quick fix for all that ails. Indeed, it causes many ailments of its own, both material and spiritual.