Street Science at the Big Dig

A couple of weeks ago, the geotechnical program was privileged to have Dr. John Christian speak at Virginia Tech on the subject of Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” project.  Dr. Christian is a geotechnical consultant and former MIT professor who has spent most of his career in the Boston area.  He is currently the chair of the civil engineering section of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Big Dig (more properly the Central Artery/Tunnel Project) was an extremely large and complicated highway project that expanded the freeway system in Boston and at the same time put much of the existing freeway underground.  There were many interesting geotechnical issues on the project in addition to the planning nightmare of doing major construction in an old and very congested city.  The project, however, became most famous for it’s ever-expanding budget and schedule.  When it started in 1991, it was supposed to cost $2.8 billion ($6 billion in 2006 dollars).  The project finished in 2007 at a cost of almost $15 billion. 

Dr. Christian’s involvement came near the end of the project as an independent reviewer for the NAE and later as a private consultant.  He spoke mostly about the history and project management lessons learned from the Big Dig.  While he cleared up many of the misconceptions about the project, Dr. Christian also pointed out a number of ways in which the project teams did their jobs poorly eventually costing the taxpayers money.

One of the fascinating aspects was the influence of state politics and public interaction on the project.  Construction began under a “hands-on” governor who placed a local man in charge of oversight.  Whenever a new phase of the project was about to start, this man would meet with residents in the neighborhood to discuss the next steps and how it would affect the traffic patterns, etc.  Invariably, the residents would bring up issues that the engineers had not thought of, and the street-level plans would have to be revised.  These simple interactions and adjustments kept the community engaged with the project.   The community provided street knowledge that the engineering team could not hope to have on their own.

Midway through the Big Dig, the state administration changed and began to take a very “hands-off” approach.  The community meetings ended.  Instead, as scrutiny of the project grew, a “bunker mentality” developed, as Christian put it.  The project team was not allowed to say anything or communicate effectively with the public.  According to Christian, poor communication between the engineers and the public was one of the major problems that occurred with the management of the Big Dig.

It is fascinating to see how the ‘success’ of a project can come down to things like communication and public perception.

4 thoughts on “Street Science at the Big Dig

  1. Fascinating. What an important case study this would make. I wonder if poor communication ended up being a serious problem because it caused unnecessary tensions between different stakeholders and/or because it prevented the flow of important information between the project team and the public. It would be very interesting to know the rationales behind the two state administrations’ approaches to the work (i.e., the “hands-on” and the “bunker mentality”). Are there books/documentaries about this project?

    • I think the communication problems were more of the second type that you mention. For example, Dr. Christian said that the project team was not allowed to speak to the public or press without having a management/lawyer-type person hovering over them to make sure they didn’t say ‘the wrong things’. The NAE report can be accessed and read online. The lecture was recorded and broadcast using the VT teleconferencing program. I think it is still being edited, but I will post the link when I get it so that you can watch the lecture.

  2. There again is one of numerous examples of how something as simple (or so it seems) as involving the public could go a long way in providing valuable insight to engineers and professionals in their work and lead to better decision-making. Yet still the public is often marginalised (though they are the most impacted) and their input not attached with the neccessary importance. I’m also interested in knowing what prompted the latter administration to take that “bunker mentality”. Obvious parallels here with the Tonawanda Coke case.

  3. I like this post Dan. I also enjoyed Dr. Christian’s presentation. I think you have definitely brought to light an issue, that I can label as applicable to geotechnical engineering. As I was having a hard time thinking of some in my previous post.

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