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$2 Million Bathroom

A Commentary By John Stossel

Did you see the $2 million dollar bathroom? That's what New York City government spent to build a "comfort station" in a park.    

I went to look at it.    

There were no gold-plated fixtures. It's just a little building with four toilets and four sinks.   

I asked park users, "What do you think that new bathroom cost?"   

A few said $70,000. One said $100,000. One said, "I could build it for $10,000."

They were shocked when I told them what the city spent.    

No park bathroom needs to cost $2 million. An entire six-bedroom house nearby was for sale for $539,000.    

Everything costs more when government builds it.    

"Government always pays above-average prices for below-average work," says my friend who makes a living privatizing government activities.   

--Obamacare's website was supposed to cost $464 million.? ?It cost $834 million and still crashed.    

--Washington, D.C.'s Visitor Center rose in cost from $265 million to $621 million.   

--The Veterans Affairs medical center being built near Denver was projected to cost $590 million. Now they estimate $1.7 billion.  

Government spends more because every decision is tied up in endless rules. Rigid specs. Affirmative action. Minority outreach. Wheelchair access. "The process is designed to prevent any human from using judgment, or adapting to unforeseen circumstances," says Philip Howard of the government reform group Common Good, adding, "The idea of a commercial relationship, based on norms of reasonableness and reciprocity, is anathema."   

But New York City's bureaucrats are unapologetic about their $2 million toilet. The Parks Department even put out a statement saying, "Our current estimate to build a new comfort station with minimal site work is $3 million."   

"$3 million?!" I said to New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, incredulously.   

"New York City is the most expensive place to build," he replied. As a result, "$2 million was a good deal."   

I pointed out that entire homes sell for less. He said, "We built these comfort stations to last. ... (L)ook at the material we use compared to that of a home. These are very, very durable materials."   

They have to be, he says, because the bathroom gets so much use. "We're going to expect thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of visitors. ... So we have to build it to last."    

Yet not far away, Bryant Park has a bathroom that gets much more use. That bathroom cost just $300,000. Why the difference?    

Bryant Park is privately managed.    

New York politicians also order contractors to pay "prevailing" wages. That usually means union wages, and that adds 13-25 percent to all bills.    

When I asked Commissioner Silver about that, he said, "This is a city that does believe strongly in labor."    

New York Democrats act as if "labor" means union labor. It's an insult to laborers. Most don't belong to unions. Unions, however, fund Democrats' campaigns.    

Since government spends other people's money, they don't care that much about cost and they certainly don't care much about speed. Many Parks Department projects are years behind schedule.   

Commissioner Silver says he's made improvements. "We've now saved five months out of what used to be four years."   

"That's still terrible!" I said.    

"We believe strongly in engaging the public," he replied. "We have a process that includes design, procurement and construction."   

But so does the private sector, which gets the job done faster.    

Silver added: "[Privately managed] Bryant Park did a renovation. ... (W)e do it from the ground up!"    

But no one forced the city to build from the ground up. Anyway, renovation can cost as much as new construction. Governments just spend more.    

Sometimes, people get so fed up that they take matters into their own hands.    

Toronto's government estimated that a tiny staircase for a park would cost $65,000-$150,000.    

So a local citizen installed a staircase himself.    

Cost? $550.    

Did the bureaucrats thank him? No. They say they will tear his staircase down. Can't have private citizens doing things for themselves. Update: The private stairs have been torn down, and the city says it will replace them for $10,000  

Because private builders save so much money on staircases and bathrooms, imagine what we could save if government turned construction of government housing, airports and roads over to the private sector.    

John Stossel is author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails -- But Individuals Succeed." For other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.



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