It always costs more than you expect!


I consider … the making a good gravel road from the New bridge on Rock creek along the Pensylva & Jersey avenues to the Eastern branch as the most important objects for ensuring the destinies of the city which can be undertaken … 4000. D. for 4 miles of road were then estimated to be sufficient. but from your statement 3695.99 D have been expended, and half the distance (tho not half the work) remains to be finished.

Source: To the District of Columbia Commissioners, August 29, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation

What do honest leaders do in the face of cost overruns?
Washington City was still mostly a rural village being carved out of a Potomac River swamp during Jefferson’s administration. (John Adams was the first executive to live in the President’s house, moving in just 10 months before this letter.) New gravel roads were the most basic infrastructure element, a considerable improvement from dirt or plank roads.

Two of the projected four miles of paving had been completed, but it did not represent one-half of the work. So, less than half done, they’d already spent 92% of their budget.

Rather than continuing the work regardless, Jefferson proposed:
1. Postpone one portion of the road where a lesser road already existed
2. Apply the small balance left to the most important segment
3. Consider what portion of a $20,000 Navy appropriation could be applied to roads
4. Complete an accurate estimate of the cost to finish the four miles
5. Assess what additional city funds might be available.

Jefferson was too liberal in spending his own money (see the last post on 500 gallons of wine for an example!) but tight-fisted with federal funds. In this example, it was strictly pay-as-you-go.

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Originally posted at

The Moral Liberal Thomas Jefferson Editor, Patrick Lee, is a professional speaker, actor and writer. Since 1990, he has inspired, entertained and educated audiences from Maine to Hawaii with his authentic, first person leadership presentations as President Thomas Jefferson, Frontiersman Daniel Boone, and Lewis & Clark Co-Leader William Clark. He also appears as himself, The Hopeful Humorist™, with a program of motivational humor, patriotism and inspiration.

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