10 Construction Projects That Broke the Bank

By: Jacob Silverman & Patrick J. Kiger  | 
The Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona towers over the city. It's been in construction since 1883.
alejocock/moment/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Ambitious construction projects like the Three Gorges Dam and the Ryugyong Hotel have historically overrun their initial budgets, often due to a combination of optimistic revenue projections and miscalculated costs.
  • Environmental and practical challenges, such as relocating populations for the Three Gorges Dam or completing the never-opened Ryugyong Hotel, have plagued these projects, escalating costs and impacting their feasibility and completion.
  • Despite their financial and logistical issues, some of these projects, like the Sagrada Familia and the International Space Station, have become iconic in their own right.

Since ancient times, humans have dreamed up grandiose construction projects and spent equally immense sums to turn their architectural visions into reality. In the mid-26th century B.C.E., the Egyptian pharaoh Knufu burned through a great deal of his kingly wealth erecting the Great Pyramid at Giza -- which by one estimate would cost $5 billion to duplicate today, even with modern construction technology [sources: Wolchover, National Geographic]. In the 1600s, the French King Louis XIV set out to build a residence as monumental as his ego, and drained the national treasury to erect the sprawling, ornate Palace of Versailles, whose price tag may have reached nearly $300 billion in modern currency [source: PBS].

Since then, the world has seen plenty of other ambitious construction projects turn into money pits for their builders, from airports and stadiums to tunnels and water dams. These white elephants often share some commonalities: overly rosy revenue projections coupled with severe miscalculations of the actual project costs; fraud in the construction bidding process, and good old-fashioned political corruption.


Here's our list of 10 such construction projects that broke the bank. A few of them are still not finished.

10: Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges discharges water during a flood peak in 2012 in Hubei, China
TPG/Getty Images

The Chinese government has a history of launching massive efforts to improve upon nature, knocking down mountains to build new cities and rerouting rivers to generate power and supply water to its increasingly urban population. Perhaps the most grandiose -- and controversial -- effort was the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei province.

The enormous project includes a dam for flood control, a giant lock for carrying ships up and down river, and 26 hydroelectric power generators. When it was approved in 1992, then-Vice Premier Zou Jiahua told the National People's Congress that it would cost $8.35 billion to build. But the project's budget quickly spiraled out of control, in part because the government had to find homes for 1.3 million people whose towns and villages were flooded by the rerouting of the river. By the time that the dam was completed in 2006, the price tag had more than quadrupled to a mind-boggling $37 billion [source: Reuters].


In 2011, China admitted the dam had created "problems." Environmentalists were more explicit, criticizing the floating layers of algae and garbage that were now common in the landlocked reservoir and the frequent landslides on the banks along it [source: Wines].

9: Ryugyong Hotel

The garish, spaceship-like Ryugyong Hotel is the world’s tallest unoccupied building.
© Benoit Cappronnier/Moment Open/Getty Images

North Korea, which has long been ruled by a totalitarian regime with a paranoid hostility toward outsiders, seems like the least likely place on Earth to build a luxury tourist resort. Yet in 1987, then-dictator Kim Il-Sung broke ground for exactly such a project, the 105-story Ryungyong Hotel, apparently in an effort to top bitter rival South Korea's triumphant hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Construction of the three-winged glass-and-concrete triangular tower stalled in the early 1990s with the collapse of North Korea's major economic patron, the Soviet Union, and the $750 million structure has languished in unfinished condition ever since, outlasting the reigns of both Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il.


In 2012, a German hotel firm announced that it would be managing the property, leading to speculation that it might finally open for business, but that turned out to be a false alarm. In fact, a reporter in 2012 found the interior was still a shell of bare concrete with a tangle of wires. But the garish, spaceship-like edifice does give North Korean capital Pyongyang an eye-catching landmark, and the dubious distinction of having the world's tallest unoccupied building [sources: CNN Travel Staff, Strochlic].

8: The MOSE Project

Two mobile barriers from the MOSE project in Venice are shown in action. MOSE stands for MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico or Experimental Electromechanical Module in English.

Flooding in Venice has been a problem for centuries and in order to prevent the venerable Italian city from sinking deeper into the lagoon on which it was founded, along came the MOSE project. It was first announced in 1988 by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianni De Michelis after years of political battles. "The deadline is still 1995," he assured everyone at the time, with the ominous caveat, "Of course, it might have to be put back a bit."

That was an understatement nearly as massive as the project itself, which involves putting 78 hinged metal gates, each weighing up to 300 tons (272 metric tons) and rising 66 feet (20 meters) in height, in channels of the Venice lagoon [source: Squires]. In the event of a flood, the panels are expected to rise and form a barrier against the waves. Since its inception, MOSE's estimated cost has ballooned from $1.7 billion (1.3 billion euros) to $8.1 billion (6 billion euros), and allegations of corruption have swirled around the still-uncompleted (as of 2019) project.


In June 2014, Venice's mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, and 34 other officials and businessmen were arrested on bribery charges in connection with building these barriers. Meanwhile, the city continues to flood and sink [source: BBC News].

7: Montreal-Mirabel Airport

The costly Montreal-Mirabel airport in Quebec opened in 1975 and closed in 2004, due to lack of customers. In May 2014, Montreal’s airport chief announced it would be torn down.

In 1969, when the Canadian government announced the construction of a massive new airport to service Montreal, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau proclaimed it to be a "project for the 21st century." But it turned out to barely last into Y2K.

In order to clear space for the airport, the government seized 100,000 acres (41,000 hectares) of private land, more than the entire city of Montreal, and forced nearly 2,000 residents out of their homes. Acquiring that acreage cost nearly $140 million, nearly eight times the original projection. The price tag for construction alone ballooned to around $276 million.


When it finally opened in 1975, squabbling between the national and provincial governments scuttled construction of a multilane highway and rapid transit system that would have linked it with Montreal and Dorval, the city's existing airport. With Mirabel located 31 miles (50 kilometers) from Montreal and Dorval, air travelers found it too difficult and expensive to reach, and by 1988 the airport handled just 2.5 million passengers annually, a fraction of the 50 million annual patrons once envisioned. In 2004, Mirabel ceased airline operations completely [source: Edwards].

There was talk of turning the site into a water park, but that never materialized. In May 2014, Montreal's airport chief announced that Mirabel's vacant terminal, which was costing the government CA $30 million ($28 million) a year to maintain, would be demolished [source: CBC News]. The demolition was completed in 2016.

6: Sagrada Familia Cathedral

An interior look at the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona; the site is a popular tourist destination.
© Erik Tham/Corbis

Legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi dreamed of building a fantastic cathedral in downtown Barcelona, one with towers topped with sculptures of local fruit and a central nave that resembled a forest, capable of holding 14,000 worshipers. The Sagrada Familia began construction in 1883, but was only 15 percent completed when Gaudi was struck and killed by a streetcar in 1926.

The work on his masterpiece was subsequently disrupted by the Spanish Civil War, in which shelling destroyed the room containing his notes and designs. Eventually, in 1952, the project was restarted [sources: Gladstone]. But it's proceeded at a glacial pace ever since, due to its mind-numbing complexity and inconsistent funding. Unlike most of the behemoths in this article, this one is funded solely by donations and ticket sales. The cathedral has become a popular tourist attraction, generating $40 million (30 million euros) in ticket sales in 2011 [source: Tremlett].


That year, Joan Rigol, president of the building committee, announced that it might be completed by 2026, in time to honor the centenary of Gaudi's death -- or maybe two years later. At this point, nobody seems to even try to calculate the 560-foot (170-meter)-tall structure's total cost [source: Tremlett]. But at least this one isn't costing taxpayers anything.

5: The International Space Station

Original estimated to cost of $17.4 billion, the International Space Station really costed $160 billion by the time it was finished.
© LEONELLO CALVETTI/Science Photo Library/Corbis

If you think keeping to construction schedules and budgets is tough on Earth, try doing it in orbit. That's the fiscal lesson of the International Space Station (ISS), an orbital laboratory that's a joint effort between Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and the U.S. The project was so complex and unwieldy that it was already four years behind schedule when it began in 1998, and its original estimated cost of $17.4 billion ultimately grew to $160 billion. The U.S. kicked in $100 billion of that total [sources: Boyle, Plumer].

Add to that the station's operating costs, to which the U.S. has contributed $3 billion annually. Those costs seem even more massive when you consider the station's limited lifespan, which was set to end in 2020. In January 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would extend the station's operation until at least 2024 (subject to congressional approval), which may help taxpayers get more for their money. Even so, the ISS most likely is the most expensive single structure ever built [source: Plumer].


4: The Millennium Dome

The Millennium Dome was a white elephant for the British government but became a cash cow for its new owners AEG Entertainments.
© Derek James Seaward/Corbis

Perhaps as close as one gets to a literal white elephant, this white, domed behemoth, built to house a celebration for the new millennium, became an embarrassing eyesore for many Londoners.

The dome was controversial from its inception in the mid-1990s. Costs rose throughout the planning and construction phases, with the British government regularly disbursing more money than planned to the builders. In the end, it cost $1.1 billion (789 million pounds) to build, versus a budget of 758 million pounds. Worse, with ticket sales only 189 million pounds ($320 million) versus a forecast of 359 million and yearly maintenance costs of $41.3 million (28.4 million pounds), the Millennium Dome was an expensive fiasco [source: BBC News].


But all was not lost. In 2007, the dome was renamed the O2 Arena, after being sold to AEG, and a 20,000 seat concert arena was added at an additional cost of 600 million pounds [source: Metro]. The O2 Arena is now a very popular venue for rock concerts and sports events.

3: The Chunnel

Automobiles drive inside the Channel Tunnel train car to be taken from Folkestone, England to Coquelles, France.
© Carlos Dominguez/Corbis

The Chunnel, or the Channel Tunnel, is a trio of 31-mile (50-kilometer) long tunnels underneath the English Channel, connecting England and France. When finished in 1994 after six years of work, the Chunnel's $21 billion cost (80 percent more than projected) made it one of the most expensive construction projects in history [source: PBS]. The project was funded privately, through bank loans and selling shares to the public. The original shareholders lost most of their money due to cost overruns, which crippled the company, and in 2004 they voted to oust the Eurotunnel board in charge of running the Chunnel. By 2009, thanks to restructuring, shareholders received a dividend [source: Malay Mail].

The Chunnel has been largely successful, moving people and freight between the United Kingdom and France in just 35 minutes. More than 325 million people have used it since it opened [source: Malay Mail].


In early 2009, a new rail link connecting London to the British side of the Chunnel in Folkestone opened. It cost an additional $13.8 billion – the single biggest construction effort in Britain's history [source: Woodman].

2: The Big Dig

The Rose Kennedy Greenway, a linear series of parks and gardens that would re-connect some of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods, was one of the features added to the city as part of the Big Dig.
© Rick Friedman/Corbis

In early 1990s Boston, traffic on the city's Central Artery -- the main highway through the city -- backed up 10 hours a day and cost the local economy $500 million annually [source: Mass. DOT]. In response, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project -- or Big Dig -- was launched in 1991 to replace the six-lane highway with an underground road of eight to 10 lanes.

The project, the most expensive construction scheme in U.S. history, involved the erection of several other major bridges, roads and tunnels, one of them going under Boston Harbor. It was originally supposed to be finished in 1998 for $2.6 billion but wasn't complete until 2007. By then, the price tag had ballooned to $14.8 billion [source: LeBlanc]. But with the interest due on borrowed funds -- which will be paid through 2038 -- the Big Dig's real cost has been estimated at $22 billion [source: Murphy].


While traffic has indeed sped up in downtown Boston, and the city itself looks more attractive, critics say the high cost (borne by taxpayers) has meant little money to repair other aging road and bridges. Moreover, traffic itself has now increased in areas outside the urban core [source: Murphy].

1: Panama Canal Expansion

Idle cranes are seen at the construction site of the Panama Canal Expansion project on the outskirts of Colon City, Feb. 12, 2014. The project is already a $1 billion over budget.
© CARLOS JASSO/Reuters/Corbis

When the U.S. built the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, workers overcame daunting obstacles, from mudslides to malaria, to complete what was heralded as one of the world's engineering marvels. A century later, an ambitious upgrade of the canal, aimed at allowing it to serve more massive vessels and double the cargo moved in and out of the Western Hemisphere, is mired in man-made complications.

In early 2014, a dispute between the Panama Canal Authority and a consortium of European construction firms over who would cover a $1.16 billion cost overrun caused the work to grind to a halt for two weeks. Eventually, the two sides were able to agree upon stopgap financing that enabled work on the project to resume. In 2016, the canal finally opened, with a construction cost of $5.3 billion [source: Padgett, Kahn]. Ironically, the $1 billion overrun brought the cost in line with the original bid made by rival Bechtel for the construction job in the first place [source: Associated Press]. As to whether the expansion was worth it, the jury is still out on that.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Construction Projects That Broke the Bank

I've long been fascinated by grandiose construction projects ever since I was in elementary school, when I read a book about the construction of famous cathedrals, some of which took centuries to complete, at costs that would be impossible to calculate. But it's amazing to think that the magnificent St. Paul's Cathedral in London, designed by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, was completed in just 35 years at a cost of 700,000 pounds, which today would work out to about $89 million. That shows that it's possible to build an architectural marvel in a reasonable time frame and cost, which makes me wonder why it isn't accomplished more often.

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