The general social contract for taxes is that the money given goes toward public services — roads, bridges, those sorts of projects. But taxpayer funds often end up being used for more specialized developments or projects, which can draw serious criticism.
The most notable in recent years has been publicly financed or subsidized stadiums for sports teams. The latest to gain some heat is the new football stadium in Buffalo for the Bills NFL franchise. New Yorkers are ponying up $850 million of the total $1.4 billion budget. It's the latest example of public funds going to a niche use.
Sports stadiums are some of several expensive projects that are publicly funded but have only limited impact on the public, given the time they are open or in use. Here are some other notable, sometimes unexpected, examples.
More football stadiums
The new Buffalo Bills stadium isn't the only arena to propose or use a large sum of taxes. When the Raiders moved to Las Vegas from Oakland, they set up home in the brand new Allegiant Stadium. Of the $1.9 billion in costs, $750 million, more than a third, was paid for by taxpayers.
These projects get some heavy criticism in part because these teams are owned by billionaires who could handle the cost without needing taxpayers to foot the bill. It's not always the case though. The Los Angeles Rams home of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood was paid for by the team's organization.
Hefty arena costs aren't limited to the game of pigskin. In another case of New York subsidizing a powerful sports team, the New York Yankees' iconic stadium cost roughly $1.19 billion to construct, and more than half of the funding came from the public.
Taxpayers chipped in $670.60 million to the project, and there were tax breaks as well, meaning less revenue going back to the public.
Both the Orioles and Ravens play in Baltimore's Camden Yards area, the former at Oriole Park and the latter at M&T; Bank Stadium. This spring the Maryland state legislature announced $1.2 billion in public funds for upgrades to the sites, split equally between the teams. That amount puts the public donations to the Orioles' home second only to what New York gave to the Yankees.
The money and upgrades were in part to incentivize the teams to stay in Baltimore and avoid moves such as what happened with the Raiders (or the original Baltimore NFL team, which fled the city for Indianapolis in the dead of night).
Incorrect military uniforms
Sports stadiums aren’t the only big-ticket item for taxpayers. The United States spent a lot of money as part of the effort to train and equip the Afghan Army over the course of the war. Among the expenses: The government spent $28 million on brand new camouflage uniforms for Afghan soldiers.
The problem was that Afghanistan is predominantly a desert country, but the uniforms used a forest green camouflage pattern that would be more at home in the Pacific Northwest. Needless to say, these were put to waste.
Bridge to nowhere
You might remember the “bridge to nowhere” discussion from the mid-2000s political news. It wasn't exactly to nowhere. The Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska would have linked the city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, which had approximately 50 inhabitants.
Federal funds were allocated and then rescinded. Plans then shifted to a road, with $25 million being spent on a highway that also has not had much use. The bridge was finally fully canceled in 2015 (there's now a ferry service connecting the island).
Not all sports are physical, and many states want to get into the business of esports. Gaming is a big business, but often events take place in preexisting stadiums or convention centers.
North Carolina passed a bill that would incentivize companies and events to hold their gaming in the state. Earlier this year, North Carolina State University received a $16 million grant from the state for the purpose of esports. Of that, $12 million was set aside to create a new facility on the campus for hosting esports events and creating jobs.
That also includes $4 million allocated for an “esports truck” that is essentially a truck with gaming equipment to hold events around North Carolina. Gone are the days of just needing a LAN connection.
There are several thousand buildings around the United States that are standing but completely empty. These range from firehouses to cabins to warehouses, and they're more than 70,000 are federally owned.
NPR reported in 2014 that the federal government pays $1.7 billion annually for the upkeep and maintenance of these buildings. And no, the majority of these buildings are not on lots big enough to fit sporting arenas, in case you were wondering if those projects could be combined.
Government programs to get people to kick their cigarette habits aren't new, and given the health risks associated with tobacco, these can have public safety and health benefits. But a weirder version of this type of program is one aimed at “hipsters.”
Since 2011 the National Institutes of Health paid influential hipsters promote quitting cigarettes to their peers. By 2015, the program had cost $5 million. That's not a huge amount relative to other projects, but it gets weirder when one considers that the definition and perception of a hipster changes with the times.
Taxpayer funds get allocated at the discretion of elected officials, and while some go toward wider, universal services, a lot end up in niche, sometimes wasteful projects.
Most projects are intended to boost local economies and create jobs. But it's hard to see an upside when some of these never came to fruition, saw the money disappear, or helped subsidize billionaires.