Failed megaprojects aren't a new phenomenon. The doomed megaproject that changed the course of Scottish history, the Darien Scheme was an attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland during the 1690s to establish a colony in the Isthmus of Panama and construct an overland route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The scheme was backed by a staggering 20% of all the capital circulating in Scotland at the time – the equivalent of tens of billions in today's money.
Several factors foiled the scheme: poor planning, ineffective management, English and Spanish opposition and outbreaks of disease that took the lives of countless workers. So, unsurprisingly, it was abandoned in 1700. The failure of the megaproject, which impoverished the country, is believed to have been one of the main drivers that led to the 1706 and 1707 Acts of Union that united Scotland with England.
The St Francis Dam, which was located in the San Francisquito Canyon around 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles, was constructed between 1924 and 1926, and made up a key part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was the city's main source of water. That was until 12 March 1928 when the dam collapsed, killing hundreds of people.
The megaproject didn't commence until the late 1980s with protests, environmental complaints and legal challenges significantly delaying its completion. Costing a budget-busting $1.3 billion, which is equivalent to $2 billion (£1.7bn) today, the highway eventually opened in 1997, but to this day local opposition remains strong and many Native Hawaiians refuse to use it as they believe it's cursed.
Nicknamed “the Desertron”, the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) was a proposed particle accelerator complex in Texas that would have been the most powerful of its kind in the world. Initially, it was meant to be America's answer to the famous Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland that was completed in 2008.
Preliminary work on the SSC began in the late 1980s, and by the early 1990s around 15 miles of tunnels were bored and 17 shafts sunk on the site. Then Congress pulled the plug. The budget had surged from $4.4 billion to more than $11 billion and the megaproject was deemed to have been grossly mismanaged. All in all, a painful $2 billion of US taxpayers' cash, equivalent to roughly $3.7 billion (£3bn) today, was wasted on the project.
A major headache for Bostonians who had to endure years of severe disruption during the build, the Big Dig, which eventually cost an inflated $22 billion (£17.9bn), kicked off in 1992. From the get-go, it was dogged by a plethora of problems that included budget overruns, long delays, design flaws, shoddy workmanship, accusations of negligence, and more.
Construction of the 5.4-mile Hallandsås Rail Tunnel (also known as Scanlink) in southwestern Sweden began in 1992 and was expected to have been fully completed by 1995. Almost from the beginning, groundwater began seeping into the tunnel, presenting a massive problem for engineers working on the megaproject. Compounding the problem, the drill broke down after boring just 59 feet of rock.
Adding to the drama, the principal contractor went bust and the megaproject was taken over by construction titan Skansa, which used a toxic substance called Rhoca-Gil to seal cracks in the rock. The sealant ended up poisoning fish and cattle in the vicinity. Works were halted in 1997 and didn't resume again until 2005. The tunnel was finally finished in 2015, 23 years behind schedule and hugely over-budget, costing a total of $1.3 billion (£1.1bn).
It was meant to be the Hubble Space Telescope's cooler, swankier younger brother when it was envisaged in 1996. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was estimated by NASA to cost $1 billion and launch in 2007. But the megaproject has dragged on and on, and the budget has now inflated to a whopping $9.7 billion (£7.9bn).
Science journal Nature has called the JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy” and for good reason. A series of setbacks and silly errors, including the use of incorrect cleaning solvents that damaged propulsion valves, and loose screws destabilising the telescope during tests, have marred the project, which isn't expected to get off the ground until 31 October 2021.
The biggest and most costly failed IT megaproject of all time, the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) was an attempt by the UK's Department of Health to unite all public patient records in a single user-friendly system, linking 30,000 doctors to 300 hospitals. Work commenced in 2002 on the vast centralised database, which was estimated to cost £2.3 billion and was due for completion in 2005.
In reality, the megaproject was badly managed and plagued by technical issues, changing specifications, privacy controversies, supplier problems and a whole lot more besides. Unfit for purpose and unfinished in 2011, the projected completion cost had mushroomed to $14.7 billion (£12.7bn), prompting the government to kill the NPfIT, which left the British taxpayer out of pocket to the tune of $12.2 billion (£10bn).
In what turned out to be the most expensive public works megaproject in Californian history, the replacement of the seismically unsound eastern section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was no mean feat. Work began in 2002 on the earthquake-proof structure, which was scheduled for completion in 2008 and projected to cost $2.6 billion, up from an estimate of $1 billion six years earlier.
All sorts of problems arose during the build including design defects, water leaks, bolt failures and a welding controversy that led to an FBI investigation. Unsurprisingly, the seemingly endless amount of issues delayed the project and bumped up the budget considerably. Ultimately, the replacement span opened to traffic in 2013, five years behind schedule, with the final bill coming in at a hefty $6.4 billion (£5.2bn).
Dubbed “Dubai's ultimate folly” by Guardian journalist Oliver Wainwright, The World was unveiled to much fanfare in May 2003. Work began that same year on the ambitious archipelago of 300 artificial islands off the coast of the Emirate, but came grinding to a halt in 2008, due to the global financial crisis and collapse of the Dubai property market. Investors found themselves seriously out of pocket.
The owner of Great Britain Island was jailed for fraud, while Ireland's proprietor took his own life. In 2009, reports suggested several islands were sinking into the sea. Lebanon was the only developed island until construction began last year on the $5 billion (£4.1bn) Heart of Europe, a six-island development that is expected to open by the end of 2020. Yet the majority of islands remain untouched and doubts persist over whether the entire megaproject will ever be completed.
The World wasn't the only major development to have run aground during the Great Recession of the late 2000s. First proposed back in 2002, the American Dream Meadowlands Mall in New Jersey (formerly known as the Xanadu project) has turned into an American nightmare. Beset by everything from investor bankruptcies and legal challenges to ballooning costs and construction delays, the sprawling retail and entertainment complex, which is now expected to come in at $5 billion (£3.8bn), was initially slated to cost $1.2 billion and open in 2007.
Construction of the East Rutherford mall began in March 2005 but the opening date was pushed back and the mall's parent company ended up going bust in 2007. A slew of badly executed hand-offs, bankruptcies, litigation and countless other issues, including the partial collapse of the roof, have further delayed the megaproject, which finally opened its doors this October despite the coronavirus pandemic, a shocking 13 years behind schedule.
The Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) was meant to save money, yet it ended up costing the taxpayer $1.1 billion (£899m) and pretty much flopped. Designed by the US Air Force, it was essentially meant to streamline the process by which the supply chain is managed.
Development was contracted out in 2005 to Oracle and was later taken over by the Computer Sciences Corporation. Despite the enormous funds that were ploughed into the project, the US Air Force concluded in 2012 that the system was more or less useless and canned the entire thing. Senators Carl Levin and John McCain described it as “one of the most egregious examples of mismanagement in recent memory”.
Planning for a new airport for Berlin started in 1989 but the megaproject wasn't approved until 2006. So much for Teutonic efficiency. Construction began that same year and the airport was poised to open in October 2011. All in all, it was expected to cost €2.4bn, but the budget and scheduled completion date proved be to be very wishful thinking indeed.
In summer 2010 the opening date was pushed back to June 2012. An embarrassing catalogue of errors, from incorrectly-sized escalators to a shortage of check-in desks, further delayed the project and blown the budget to more than €7 billion ($8.2bn/£6.3bn). Incredibly, as the demand for air travel collapsed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the airport has finally been finished and is set to open at the end of October. However, Terminal 2 will not open until the middle of next year due to the current lack of passengers.
From the Hubble Telescope to Crossrail: the late global megaprojects that blew the budget
A monument to the hubris that characterised Spain's pre-financial crisis spending spree, Ciudad Real Central Airport was marred by poor planning from the outset. Originally envisaged as an overflow airport for Madrid, the €1bn ($1bn/£891m) so-called 'central' airport was ironically built in the middle of nowhere, 141 miles away from the Spanish capital.
The white elephant, which was planned to handle up to 10 million passengers a year, opened in 2008 but attracted only three low-cost airlines and just several thousand travellers in the first 12 months. In 2012, the airport's owner went bust and all operations ceased. The site was eventually sold in 2015 to a Chinese-led consortium of investors for a measly €10,000 ($11k/£8.9k). However, three years later it was sold on for €56.2 million ($65.9m/£50.7m) to Ciudad Real International Airport SL and in 2019 even received its first flight, although it had no passengers. After a failed rebranding as 'Madrid Airport South', with Madrid lying 150 miles away, it has been suggested that the "ghost airport" may be used for flight training and tech support, but for now it remains abandoned.
Construction began on a new state-of-the-art reactor at the Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant in northern France in 2007. French energy giant EDF budgeted €3.3 billion for the flagship megaproject and proudly announced that it would take just four and a half years to complete, aiming for it to be fully operational in 2012.
But the reactor is still unfinished. Setback after setback, including problems with welding, issues with the strength of the steel used and even an explosion on the site, have delayed the project spectacularly and sent costs soaring. Unit 3 isn't expected to get up and running until the 2024 at the earliest, over a decade late, and the costs have now skyrocketed to €12.4 billion ($14.6bn/£11.2bn).
The largest redevelopment project in the US West Coast city since the 1906 earthquake, the San Francisco Shipyard revamp is set to boast 12,000 relatively affordable homes and an array of shops, offices, restaurants and green spaces. Scheduled for completion sometime during the early 2030s, the waterfront development is set to cost $8 billion (£6.5bn). Except the entire megaproject has been put on hold indefinitely.
Fabrication delays put back the megaproject's completion date to 2020 and costs soared. As a consequence, Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2017 and the megaproject was eventually abandoned. A jaw-dropping $9 billion (£7.7bn) was wasted on the reactors. While a consortium of US and foreign companies has recently expressed an interest in buying the two reactors, there is still no guarantee they will ever be completed.
Construction of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel, aka the Highway 99 tunnel, commenced in July 2013, and planners were confident the vast project would be done and dusted by December 2015. If only. In December 2013, Big Bertha, the colossal boring machine built specially for the multibillion-dollar megaproject, overheated and malfunctioned.
Big Bertha was eventually fixed in December 2015 and boring resumed but a sinkhole that appeared on the site in January 2016 further delayed the megaproject. The tunnel finally opened to traffic in February 2019, three years and two months behind schedule and $600 million (£490m) over-budget.
From disused stadiums to deserted airports: billion-dollar wastes of money
Poor planning, botched engineering and other issues have pushed the scheme CA$6 billion ($4.6bn/£3.7bn) over-budget. Initially set for completion in 2017, the megaproject is already three years behind schedule. It is expected to be completed in the summer of 2021. The supposedly green venture has also been blamed for flooding the area downstream of the Lower Churchill River and contaminating the watercourse with toxic methylmercury.
It was meant to be a symbol of prosperity, but it's ended up as anything but. Looming ominously over the North Korean capital, Pyongyang's pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel remains unfinished and unoccupied. Construction of the 105-storey skyscraper, which stands 1,080 feet tall, began way back in 1987 but ceased in 1992 when funds dried up during the period of economic crisis that followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
Work resumed on the billion-dollar “Hotel of Doom” in 2008 but only the exterior glasswork was finished. Construction halted yet again with some commentators suggesting that North Korea lacked the raw materials and expertise to complete the structure, but access roads were built in 2017 and LED displays were added to the building last year. Nevertheless, the hotel remains empty and it appears that it will stay that way for the foreseeable future.
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