Means a Nine-Digit Local Bill
By Eric Lipton
The bug is the Year 2000 computer ailment. Local, state and regional governments have identified hundreds of vulnerable computer systems affecting a wide spectrum of services.
The mobilization now underway to fix the flaw extends far beyond state capitols and city halls. HOV-lane gates in Virginia, tollbooths on the Dulles Toll Road, Maryland State Police Breathalyzers, traffic lights throughout Northern Virginia each is suspected of having complications linked to the arrival of the year 2000.
So, too, are the tax collection, driver's license and business permit systems in the District; keno and lottery terminals in Maryland; off-loading equipment at Baltimore's port; and most of the computer systems that help operate Virginia's jails.
Fixing Year 2000 flaws will cost Maryland, Virginia and the area's municipal governments at least $370 million, according to aggregate figures provided to The Washington Post by several dozen state and local officials. An army of government employees and consultants is rewriting computer code, or designing and installing entirely new computer systems.
Officials say they also realize that to successfully avoid disruptions 17 months from now, the public and private sectors must work in tandem. Dead phones or a loss of power, delays in delivery of essential supplies, interruption of federal benefit checks routed through counties and cities each could upend a local government's best-laid plans for Jan. 1, 2000.
Likewise, a disruption of Metrorail which still is busy assessing and fixing its Year 2000 problems could affect hundreds of thousands of federal and private workers. The federal bureaucracy and area businesses also rely on dozens of local services that, in turn, rely on computers from the District's water distribution system to suburban police and fire dispatchers.
The open question in the Washington region echoes a similar question across the country and around the world: Will the necessary fixes get done in time?
The District's assessment is simple: The transition to 2000 "absolutely" will result in some system failures, said Suzanne Peck, the city's acting chief technology officer.
"We came late to the game, and we came with a pile of stuff" to do, Peck said.
That likely will mean turning to backup systems such as manually looking up the location of a house rather than relying on a computer-automated system before sending out an ambulance or firetruck, a technique that could result in a 30- to 60-second delay, Peck said.
In Maryland and Virginia, officials insist that they have a firm handle on the scope of their Year 2000 problems. They have largely completed the task of rooting through thousands of lines of arcane computer code and inspecting devices and systems for flaws. Both states are well into repair efforts. But no one is yet offering residents guaranteed trouble-free transition to the new century.
"There will be at least some limited interruptions that will affect segments of the population," said Fred W. Puddester, secretary of the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, which oversees the state's Year 2000 effort. "It is our responsibility to make sure they are minimal and do not affect the critical services."
What makes the job so back-breaking is the extraordinary degree to which computers are vital for even routine local government services. "In a relatively short period of time, computers have become essential to just about everything we do," said Bruce C. Morris, Virginia's deputy secretary of public safety. "What we are finding out now is just how dependent we have become, in ways we had never really thought about."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company