2006/07/16

Boston's Big Drag

A lot of people look at Boston's Big Dig and see a huge boondoggle--a bloated multi-billion dollar, unnecessary, civic welfare project, but those people are wrong. Though I've never lived in Boston, I visited the city monthly on business for many years back in the 90s, and living in Sodom by the Sea as I do, I know something of successful urban renewal. And that's what the Big Dig is: The biggest, potentially most successful, most beautifying urban renewal project in US history.

For those of you who never drove the I93 skyway let me describe it to you. It's a two-story, rusting pile of metal girders--arguably the ugliest urban freeway in the nation that was designed, I'm convinced, by drunks. Ramps to nowhere (and from nowhere) peel off a random intervals. Lanes shift for no reason, and the number of lanes expands and contracts like a demented squeezebox. And every day this metal monstrosity was filled bumper-to-bumper with cars moving so slowly that one could run from Cambridge to Government Center more quickly than one could drive.

But the most tragic aspect of I93 was that when it went up North End and the docks were cut off from the rest of Boston. Actually, if you count Massachusetts Turnpike (I90, also part of the Big Dig), Boston was divided in quarters. I don't' know that I ever walked into the North End. We always took a cab because nobody ever went under the 93 skyway on foot. So the value of burying the inner city sections of I90 and I93, tearing down the I93 skyway, and giving the liberated land over to the creation of parks and mixed use development can't, Can't, CAN'T be underestimated. Boston is once again a "whole" city.

So what's the most tragic aspect of the Big Dig? Is it the cost--$18B +, fully 7 times the original estimates? Not a chance. $18B is a small price to pay for the value realized by Boston's transformation. Is it the death of the poor woman who's car was crushed under a falling concrete ceiling panel? No. Though this was an unfortunate incident, it is a blip in such a large and complex project. No...the real tragedy is that at all levels, the contractors on the Big Dig seem to have bungled just about every aspect of its creation and all to pad their bottom lines. Short term profit, fostering criminal negligence, will force Massachusetts to spend billions more to correct all the issues, and meanwhile the public is going to focus more on the problems than on how the Big Dig improves their lives. That's the real tragedy.

10 Comments:

Too bad you never made it to the North End -- it's a very cool part of town, or at least it was when I lived there for several years over a decade ago. Wonderful food, little coffee shops, a real neighborhood feeling, etc.

When I was leaving to come back home, the Big Dig was getting under way. The fact that it's not finished yet is just unbelieveable. Yes, it's a big project, but crikey, that's ridiculous.

It's too bad the project was allowed to proceed in such a corrupt and inefficient manner. Like you said, it will probably put a big damper on future projects of a similar scope.
From the hundreds of truckloads of cement that didn't meet specs but were poured anyway, to the slurry walls that were built without an outer layer that would make them watertight, to the current problem with the bolts that hold up the 3-ton ceiling panels letting go, Boston has managed to turn an engineering marvel into a fiasco.

According to the Boston Globe, about $1.1 billion in project overrun costs are due to Bechtel design errors. Not only has Bechtel not been required to pay a cent of that money, it actually received $264 million in additional payments to fix its own mistakes, as of 2003.

You're right, Kvatch, the Big Dig has made a tremendous difference in the quality of life in the city. The North End is not only re-connected to the rest of the city, but it is so much quieter. It improved traffic congestion and eliminated some of the hair-raising merges, and we have a truly beautiful suspension bridge. But, we paid top-dollar for this thing and got bargain-basement results. There is likely criminal negligence here, and someone needs to pay.
Betty, I actually have been in the North End...many times. I've just never had the pleasure of walking there from Government Center.

From the hundreds of truckloads of cement that didn't meet specs but were poured anyway

I feel your pain man! We're just now finding out that much of the cement used in the Bay Bridge retrofit (Western span approaches) is substandard, and Pacific Cement (the offending contractor) has just gone bankrupt. CALTRANS is keeping it super quite as to whether substandard cement has used in the new Eastern Span--our new bridge to replace the seismically unsound girder section.

$1.1 billion in project overrun costs are due to Bechtel design errors. Not only has Bechtel not been required to pay a cent...

Abi, tell you what... First thing Monday I'll head down to Bechtel and kick a door for you and shout, "This is for Abi, mother-f*ckers!" (Seriously, they're right here.)
There's a mystery novel called The Big Dig and the bad guy is part of the corruption you just outlined. Everytime I hear about the "Big Dig, I think, they are at it again - over and over.
Funny, but when I read about companies overcharging the government for substandard work (Bechtel, Halliburton) they are all companies with ties to the fiscally conservative Republican hierarchy.
These type of projects always have a field engineer (at least one) on site to approve any changes to the original design.
I've been on similar projects, and there is a tremendous amount of paperwork that each contractor has to have completed by the crews, eg initialing torque specs, signing lot lists for mterials, etc.
There's a lot of culpability to spread around.
I find Abi's summation to be correct:
...we paid top-dollar for this thing and got bargain-basement results. There is likely criminal negligence here, and someone needs to pay.
There's a lot of culpability to spread around.

ProgT, Ain't that the truth! What I'm now wondering about is whether or not Gov. Romney's taking over the investigation/administration is a move to deal with the issues or a move to gloss them over in a rush to get the tunnels reopened.

Anybody got an thoughts? Abi?

...they are all companies with ties to the fiscally conservative Republican hierarchy.

Lew, want to head over to Bechtel with me on Monday morning and kick ass? ;-)
I think Romney is just trying to pull a mini-Giuliani by showing what a take-charge guy he is in an emergency. If he wants to be president, he's going to have to make the Big Dig mess work for him and not against him.

And thanks for your considerate offer to kick down Bechtel's door for me. But if you do, could you please not mention my name? I don't want to end up the hidden surprise in some concrete retaining wall. ;-)
I don't want to end up the hidden surprise in some concrete retaining wall. ;-)

You don't think all the skeletons buried by the retaining walls is the reason they're leaking?
Wasn't Ted Kennedy a huge proponent of the Big Dig? My brain is fuzzy this evening, but it seems like he was one of the major people who pushed the project through. If he was, just watch the GOP try to make hay from the current situation.

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