Washington area screwups

A frequent topic in the main-stream media is cost overruns and program difficulties in the Department of Defense.
The message seems to be that DoD does a bad job with developing systems,
plus many, if not most, of their cost estimates cannot be trusted.

Well, I would certainly agree that many of their projects do have problems with fulfilling all of their contracted requirements and goals,
and that many, if not most, do suffer from cost overruns.
But I believe the difficulties with meeting performance goals
must be placed in the context of realizing that in many cases
they are pushing the state of the art,
trying to develop new technologies that will be more effective on the battle field.
And the cost overruns, in addition to reasonable difficulties in estimating costs,
are also exacerbated by contractor's tendencies to lowball bids for competitive advantage,
and DoD program managers to not want to tell their bosses and Congress
of the real likely costs of systems
for fear that they would never be started
if the true ultimate cost were known.

Anyhow, what I want to do in this post
is to point out that these problems are hardly unique to DoD,
by at least mentioning some of the problems Washington area governments have had with their civilian projects.

Metro says Silver Spring Transit Center needs yet more repairs
By Bill Turque
Washington Post, 2015-07-27

[How it can be so difficult to build a transit center for buses
is hard for me to understand,
but evidently it is, at least in Silver Spring.
This story has gone on for years,
with finger-pointing among those responsible, the engineers, contractors, and government managers.]

More articles, more issues:

D.C. police take most breath test machines out of service
By Peter Hermann, Keith L. Alexander and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post, 2015-09-20

D.C. police have been working for nearly two months with only one of the eight machines the department uses to measure the blood-alcohol content of suspected drunk drivers, complicating prosecutions and possibly slowing the number of arrests.

The problem arose after the only city employee trained to test the accuracy of the devices, known as Intoximeters,
quit early in the summer, officials said.
Because the devices require regular certification for the results to be allowed in court,
several had to be taken offline.


District officials said that they have hired a new supervisor and trained additional staffers to calibrate the machines, and that three additional Intoximeters will be running this week, with the remainder to become operational in early October. The breath-testing program is run by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which has forensic experts.


Problems with the breath machines are just one of the issues involving evidence that have impacted law enforcement agencies in the District this summer. A toxicology lab run by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner halted some blood and urine testing for a few weeks.

A separate city-run DNA lab stopped work in April after a national accreditation board identified problems with analysis. Cases were sent to a private lab. Several top employees at the city lab, which is run by the Department of Forensic Sciences, were replaced. The lab is hoping to resume testing by November or December, spokeswoman LaShon Beamon said.


Authorities and defense attorneys said no criminal convictions have been impacted thus far by the OCME lab issues. But coming on the heels of the DNA testing issue at the District’s $220 million Consolidated Forensic Laboratory, which opened in 2012 in Southwest Washington, the developments fed questions about the reliability of forensic evidence used by city police and prosecutors, as well as the competence of examiners.

“It doesn’t give you confidence that the evidence gathering in the city is in good shape,” said Betty Ballester, head of the D.C. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. “What is going on? What do you trust? It gives you pause, that’s for sure.”


The medical examiner’s office stopped blood and urine testing at the toxicology lab between May 22 and July 31, outsourcing 108 cases at a cost to taxpayers of about $40,000. D.C. police said there were no delays in investigations during this period.

Roger A. Mitchell Jr., the District’s chief medical examiner, said work was suspended because some technicians did not understand when a quality-control feature on the lab instruments indicated that there probably was a problem with results in one drug case. A supervisor later noticed the issue.

Mitchell said no faulty test results were published or used, but officials decided that they needed to reeducate staff.

“We trained people better to ensure that an error would not get to the last step before the results would go out,” he said. “I wanted to make sure we shored up any errors that could be identified and corrected.”

Two months after problems in the toxicology lab surfaced, Mitchell said he suspended the alcohol breath program when the supervisor resigned. He said that additional employees are now trained to maintain the breath machines so that one departure won’t impact the program. “So if someone were to leave now, we won’t have that gap in service,” he said.

This is not the first time that the District has stopped using breath-testing machines. The program was halted in 2011 after more than 400 people were arrested based on unreliable test results. At the time, the city was using machines that had not been properly calibrated. They were replaced with the Intoximeters, which are made by another company.

The District paid out about $368,000 to settle 20 civil cases brought by drivers convicted using faulty test results. Fetting was one of three police officers who testified about the problems; they later claimed that the department retaliated against them, but courts refused to grant them whistleblower status.

In 2013, city officials gave control of the new breath-testing program to the medical examiner’s office.