Big believer

June 6, 2007

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, nicknamed the “Big Dig.” Records of project planning activity date all the way back to 1982, and as of 2007 all sections of the project are now open to traffic.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, nicknamed the “Big Dig.” Records of project planning activity date all the way back to 1982, and as of 2007 all sections of the project are now open to traffic.

More than $14.6 billion has been expended, and recent projections put completion closer to $15 billion. As with all highway projects, the Big Dig journey passed through planning to design, then on to construction and finally into operations and maintenance. The similarities with other highway projects stop there. The Big Dig has been unique in many ways, not all positive, including unparalleled cost escalations and highly publicized construction problems. Prior to completion, the only positive news has been a few construction achievements well known in the industry and the management of traffic during construction. New measurements and projections of project benefits are now available and an assessment of the true value of the project is possible. Even if the project does eventually achieve its original goals, will the highway construction industry ever see another mega project like the Big Dig? If there is another mega project with the scope and cost of the Big Dig, will it be managed differently based upon lessons learned? Looking back at the Big Dig, what really went wrong and what really went right?

True to traffic

With the final cosmetic touches now being put on the largest mega project in U.S. history, it is now possible for the first time to speculate how history will judge the project. As with every human endeavor, nothing is in reality a total success or a total failure. A Big Dig scorecard needs to consider costs, schedule, quality of construction and tangible benefits to the public. At a staggering $14.6 billion for 7.5 centerline miles of highway, the cost of the project is over $300,000 per inch. At that rate, achieving a positive benefit-to-cost ratio for the project will require unprecedented benefits. However, the facts emerging show the numbers may be closer than you might think.

The Big Dig has had more ups and downs than the numerous ramps that drop from the surface into the labyrinth of new subterranean highways. The most recent blow to the project came in August 2006 when a fatal accident resulting from a ceiling failure became the latest in a series of project problems to make national headlines.

Although it has been consistently maligned in its hometown newspaper, the news from the Big Dig is not all bad. Some monumental construction challenges have been met and mastered, including the soil freezing and tunnel jacking required to complete the I-90 extension to the new Ted Williams Tunnel. Now that the facilities are fully open to traffic, it is clear that the excessive daily traffic congestion and related air pollution that once gripped downtown Boston has been substantially reduced. A large portion of the vehicle delay disappeared with the giant concrete and steel elevated freeway that for two score years blackened the fourth-story windows of adjacent Boston buildings.

When it comes to traffic, the promise of the project planners to vastly improve traffic flow was kept, and even exceeded. A popular sound bite used by project critics during the design phase was “it will be obsolete the day it opens.” Traffic data collected and compared with “before” conditions have proven the critics who voiced that position wrong. Dramatic reductions in travel time and increases in traffic flow have now been documented in a new study recently published by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA). The study was conducted independently of the Big Dig construction management consultants. The study, titled Economic Impacts of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, performed by the Boston-based international transportation and economics consulting group EDR, stated that “the original 1990 environmental projection was that the ‘Big Dig’ would improve traffic flow by 40% by 2010. Today, the project exceeds that with a 62% improvement in traffic flow. This was accomplished while overall traffic volume grew by 23.5% since 1995.”

Improved traffic flow is only one part of the picture. New public parks, reconnected neighborhoods, revitalized commercial activity and an aesthetic face-lift unparalleled in American municipal history have prepared Bostonians for a brighter socioeconomic future. The Rose Kennedy Greenway and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge will transform the path of the old Central Artery into an extraordinarily beautiful stretch of parkland crisscrossed by sidewalks and streets that reconnect the city to its waterfront. The bustling crowd of locals and tourists that can be seen every day walking about at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace will soon be able to stroll farther east through the R.K. Greenway to parks like Christopher Columbus Park that sit at the bay’s edge. Dramatic increases in the value of downtown, South Boston and Seaport District real estate have been realized and are projected to soar with the completion of the greenway. As spectacular as the traffic improvements and urban area transformations may be, they are not sensational enough to capture national headlines. The Big Dig’s unexposed benefits are every bit as real as the costs and problems so readily exposed by the broadcast media.

Sign from above

In spite of the realization of the key kept promises, the Big Dig is as beleaguered as ever, and new fears about structural integrity have eroded the public’s perception of the project into a mired mess of mixed reviews.

After enduring more than a decade of political firestorms and media bashings, the past two years has seen a series of successful and meaningful ribbon cuttings. The opening of new tunnel sections and connector ramps, the world’s widest cable-stayed bridge and numerous public parks only temporarily lifted the spirits of the remaining project partisans. Those spirits must certainly have fallen again with the concrete ceiling panel that killed a motorist last year. The tragedy started a new series of searing public commentary and politically charged lawsuits.

In the days following the disaster, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney “knee-jerked,” went on the offensive and publicly questioned the safety of the tunnels. As the top elected state official, his lack of confidence prematurely trumped lesser bureaucrats who were responsible for determining the actual cause of failure and dealing with the problems. The reaction was predictable if not understandable as the Big Dig has always been an easy target for criticism. Defending the Big Dig project in the light of this catastrophe might appear to be political suicide in the short term. However, joining the ranks of critics may erode long-term credibility when it is time to take credit for the benefits.

The accident that killed Milena Delvalle of Boston’s Jamaica Plain was caused by the failure of an epoxy-based anchoring system that held a large concrete ceiling panel in place. Reports from the scene indicated that there was no evidence of epoxy on some of the anchors that were lying in the debris on the road. A cursory search of public project records reveals that ceiling panel installation methods have been the subject of claims and changes and formed the basis of a value-engineering effort managed by the management consultant, a joint venture of Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff. The causes of the failure have been reported to be a deadly mix of poor workmanship, flawed inspection and questionable decisions by project management that ultimately reduced the factor of safety to save time and money.

The investigation found that the failed anchors were among the first to be installed using the epoxy method, with the implication not that the oldest anchors failed first, but that the first anchors were installed by crews inexperienced with the method. Although there is no way to prevent motorists from having accidents due to human error, there is no excuse for a purely structural failure due to nothing more than the weight of an element under normal stress conditions.

As each month goes by absent of more failures, the August 2006 tragedy looks more and more like an isolated problem. People in the construction industry know that history is peppered with tunnel collapses. Less than a month after the Boston accident, a highway tunnel linking the cities of Guangnan and Yanshan collapsed in southwestern China, trapping 25 workers. Unfortunately, like so many other “firsts,” the Big Dig is the site of the only highway tunnel collapse in memory to occur shortly after the tunnel was opened to traffic.

Structural failures over the past two years provide a roadmap to the No. 1 thing that has gone wrong with the Big Dig. Since project inception, the highly privatized program management of the project has had amazingly minimal public-agency oversight, placing the true power of the purse strings and key day-to-day decision making in the hands of the management consultant.

Highway construction projects a fraction of the size of the Big Dig have had twice as many public-sector managers. Privatization itself is not the problem, because without privatization mega projects are not possible. The problem ensues when the privatized management is forced to operate outside their realm and role in order to fill a vacuum. When construction problems occurred, Boston political adversaries and the media have had the upper hand over the Big Dig management consultant, which is constrained both by its position as a private firm and its responsibility to deal in technical accuracy rather than shooting from the hip.

In the case of the tunnel leaks in 2004, the strong condemnation by the Boston Globe essentially went unanswered for six months. Six days is too long, much less six months. The Big Dig has needed both a political and a public-agency advocate empowered and motivated to respond quickly to quell the rush to judgment. Future mega projects need more than engineering and construction leadership. Advocacy in the ranks of the politically elected leaders and appointed agency heads must be cultivated and maintained to establish ongoing public confidence and accountability.

Money to move

The second thing that went wrong was the magnitude of the cost escalation. Some cost increases would be expected, but quadrupling costs point to either incompetence in estimating or intentional lowballing.

The reality of the Big Dig is that from the start, schedule compliance was favored over budget adherence. Management spent money to keep the project moving, knowing that failure to overcome obstacles in individual contracts would have a ripple effect throughout the project. In the mega project environment, the whole is split into many smaller parts that must fit together in both space and time. If one contractor’s schedule slipped, several other contractors could claim a delay. Public-sector and political accountability also would have gone a long way to address the continuing issue of cost escalation. The decision to blame the management consultant for underestimating true project costs during project planning may have provided a convenient scapegoat to deflect political accountability. However, it also had the long-term detrimental effect of exposing the management consultant to media pressure to which it could not respond and eroding the public confidence in the privatized program management of the Big Dig.

When a technical problem occurs that rightly requires the management consultant’s action, even their best efforts are met with skepticism. The lesson learned is that you can’t have it both ways. If you use your program manager as a scapegoat in the media, you can’t expect the public to accept your total reliance on him when problems arise.

Still glossy

The advocates of this project in the 1980s produced glossy brochures that focused primarily on elimination of the habitually congested elevated portion of I-93 in downtown Boston. One particularly powerful brochure was the “Now you see it—Now you don’t” piece that included a photo of the jammed Central Artery on the cover and an artist’s rendering of a new park-like setting in the same location. The primary benefits described in detail were transportation related, and the secondary benefits described much more vaguely had to do with “reconnecting neighborhoods” and creating new green space for Bostonians to enjoy. It is now possible to compare the promises of the project’s visionaries with the realities of the as-built project.

A justification for the project was certainly that operation of the existing highway had become unacceptable by any standard. The 14-hour-long peak hour average speeds on the elevated Central Artery had dipped into single digits, reflecting one of the worst operational conditions in the world. Due to the extremely poor existing conditions, the contrast between the before and after conditions is truly dramatic and helps to justify the cost of the project.

The astounding results of the EDR study show dramatic improvements in average speeds and delays. As an example, the daily average travel speed for the old Central Artery northbound was 10 mph; the Big Dig quadrupled it to 43 mph. The average speed for all harbor tunnels (the new Ted Williams Tunnel plus the existing Sumner and Callahan tunnels) nearly tripled from 13 mph to 36 mph. These unprecedented improvements in traffic flow have the combined effect of reducing the daily hours of vehicle delay on these facilities a whopping 66% from 38,088 daily hours of vehicle delay in 1995 to 12,834 in 2005 after the Big Dig opened.

The delay reductions for some individual minor movements were mind-boggling, such as the notorious bottleneck between Storrow Drive eastbound and I-93 northbound that improved by 81%. This was the site of an apartment building with a sign that read “IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU’D BE HOME BY NOW.” The Big Dig decreased the average travel time through this segment from 16 minutes to less than four minutes. This perpetual traffic jam was as much a Boston landmark as the Old North Church, and now it is essentially gone. All of these numbers were achieved in spite of a growth in overall traffic demand reflected in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) of 13% in the same period.

Where did the traffic go? The traffic volume is still there. It has even increased. It is the delay that was eliminated, and this was the vision of the project. The true genius of this mega project has always been not just the replacement of decaying infrastructure, but the amazingly efficient transportation connections that the new viaducts, bridges and tunnels create that speed traffic flow throughout the metropolitan Boston region.

The Big Dig is essentially America’s largest interchange. With these connections, the whole metropolitan highway system operated by the MTA finally functions as a system, and reductions of demand on formerly bottlenecked facilities abound. Traffic is better throughout Boston, not just in the project limits.

The EDR study projects that “these improvements are now providing approximately $167 million annually in time and cost savings for travelers. This includes $24 million of savings in vehicle operating cost plus a value of $143 million of time savings. Slightly over half of that time-savings value ($73 million) is for work-related trips and can be viewed as a reduction in the costs of doing business in Boston.” The study points out that the promise of the original 1990 project documents used for the environmental assessment projected that the Big Dig would improve traffic flow by 40% by 2010.

In light of these improvements, is it possible to consider the Big Dig a failure? Unfortunately, if traffic were the only benefit, the astronomical project cost would make the Big Dig investment questionable in comparison with a more traditional reconstruction. The traffic analysis portion of the EDR report claimed that the completed project provides annual savings of $177 million (2005 dollars) in operating costs and delay reductions for roadway users. Although these numbers are impressive, based on traffic benefits alone it would take 80 years to break even (not considering the cost of a traditional alternative). In order to evaluate the true benefits of the Big Dig, the economic effects on real estate also must be considered.

Positive square feet

The historically volatile economy of the greater metro Boston region now sits at the near side of a new economic boom that will be fueled by nothing more than the subterranean superhighway brought by the Big Dig. In real estate, location is everything, and the Big Dig is transforming industrial wasteland choked by congestion into easily accessible high-end real estate.

The Big Dig will create an estimated 16 to 21 million sq ft of new commercial and residential development in the South Boston Seaport District alone. The EDR study stated that real estate projects already developed or in construction and planning total 10 million sq ft of office and retail space, including nearly 8,000 new housing units, reflecting $7 billion in private investment made possible by the Big Dig. The increase in property value is estimated to bring in as much as $120,000 million per year of much-needed property tax revenue. Combined with the prospect of future increases to toll revenue, this boost should help the commonwealth maintain its investment provided the dollars are properly appropriated to maintaining the roadways.

Given the history of Boston and the value of the adjacent Back Bay area, a man-made residential and commercial gold mine created from the swampy marsh south of the Charles River, there is no doubt that the market forces needed to capitalize on the Big Dig investment are converging and will drive the project’s true value into the stratosphere within the next 20 years. With the concrete and steel canyon of the Central Artery being replaced by the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a remarkably beautiful property value engine that will provide a 180° swing in the aesthetics of downtown Boston, the project planner’s commitment to keeping the air rights publicly owned will pay off 10-fold.

Another clear winner from the Big Dig is Boston’s Logan International Airport. After years of steadily losing passengers to expanding airports in New Hampshire and Rhode Island due to the untenable travel time in the existing access highways and tunnels, Logan will solidify its position as king of the New England airports. The EDR study reported that access to Logan “is now easier for an added 800,000 Massachusetts residents who with the full opening of the I-90 connector to the Ted Williams Tunnel, now live within 40 minutes of the airport. Today, 2.5 million residents live within 40 minutes of Logan International Airport.”

The Big Dig also delivered a massive shot in the arm for the New England economy. The cost of the cubic yards of excavation, new concrete and steel do not add up to $14.6 billion. The difference was corporate profits and job income. The Big Dig created nearly 50,000 jobs in Boston. Over 50 engineering teams and over 125 contractors received valuable contracts. Although some Boston families paid dearly for the privilege to work on the Big Dig, the worker safety record was good. The Hegarty family in Dorchester lost their father, John, the first worker killed on the project after six years of construction without a fatality. Given the complexity and size of the project, the overall safety record of the project was far above average and provided unusually safe and high-paying jobs.

Touching the nerve

Recently, I sat in the $200 million Operations Control Center talking with Jim Murphy of the MTA, the man who is responsible for day-to-day operation of the world’s most expensive labyrinth of tunnels, freeways, viaducts and tollways. Murphy spoke with sincerity in a serious tone about his job managing the facilities. He dodged no questions, admitting a few shortcomings of the project, but at the same time described the complexities and realities of this underground superhighway in a matter-of-fact way.

It may be hard for some to admit it, but the project worked. The Big Dig did what it was supposed to do, what it was promised to do. All the critics who lined up to say it would fail were wrong. The criticism of project cost escalations was justified, but the total value of the project to Boston will continue to exceed expectations. In an era when spending on a foreign war can be $2 billion per week, the cost of the Big Dig could be expended in eight weeks.

About The Author: Baxter is North American ITS Director for Stantec.

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