Monday, October 21, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Corrected version

Boston's Big Dig: What Seattle can learn

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

BOSTON — Get on Interstate 90 near Safeco Field, drive east about 3,000 miles, and you'll land in the middle of the most notorious highway construction project in the country, Boston's Big Dig.

Now in its final stages, the project has been saddled with allegations of mismanagement, misleading the public about rising costs and a host of other ills. At the center of the debate are official cost estimates that went from $2.6 billion in 1983 to $14.6 billion today.

The heart of the Big Dig may sound familiar: replacing an elevated highway through the middle of downtown with a tunnel — a project similar to plans to deal with the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.

The viaduct proposal has an equally impressive cost estimate, up to $4.7 billion for the first phase and potentially another $11 billion or more to finish all the work envisioned over several decades.

Concerns about the enormous expense have a direct bearing on Referendum 51, a $7.8 billion tax increase on the November ballot that would pour money into Puget Sound transportation projects.

Pollster Stuart Elway has found that almost half of the people who plan to vote against Referendum 51 cite distrust in government. Examples of government waste have been pounded into the public consciousness over many years, he said.

"It's a cumulative thing. People talk about the $800 toilet seat the Pentagon bought," he said. "All that stuff contributes to the general picture."

Doug MacDonald, Washington's secretary of transportation, says his agency has gone to great lengths to avoid the types of mistakes made on the Big Dig. He sent engineers to Boston to learn what went wrong. The Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) crafted estimates he believes accurately gauge the potential cost of replacing the viaduct and completing other megaprojects.

Still, the question remains: Could the cost overruns experienced by the Big Dig happen here?

"Absolutely," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. Megaprojects are so big, complicated and subject to local politics there's no way to guarantee anything, Hallenbeck and other experts say.

In the case of the Big Dig, cost increases have been blamed in part on accounting changes — not adjusting estimates for inflation until late in the game — and the expense of building a complex project in the middle of a metropolis.

But a key factor many experts point to is the constant pressure for the builders to do extra, unanticipated stuff — such as adding car-pool lanes, digging tunnels not in the original plan, sound-proofing buildings near the construction zone, constructing temporary highway ramps. It's a long list, worth billions of dollars.

MacDonald promises to hold the line against such advances. "You must be very careful not to let the projects become Christmas trees for any number of claims that might be made for them," he said.

The willingness to "say no" is key to containing costs, Hallenbeck agrees. But this region doesn't have a good track record. "Traditionally, we have said the neighborhood wins, and we're going to buy your silence."

Boston's clogged artery

The Big Dig, like the full Alaskan Way Viaduct proposal in Seattle, is actually a conglomeration of major highway projects.

The entire effort spans 7.8 miles of highway, about half in tunnels. It includes a 10-lane cable-stayed bridge, the widest ever built, and a four-lane tunnel under Boston Harbor.

The centerpiece is getting rid of the downtown Central Artery, a rusty concrete and steel structure that cuts a broad swath through the heart of Boston. It's clogged with traffic day and night. Graffiti adorns its length. Locals call it a "green monster," referring to the color of the paint job.

Bostonians have hated it since it was built in the 1950s, before the days of environmental-impact statements and litigious special interests. Construction crews blasted a path through downtown, displacing 20,000 people and demolishing 1,000 buildings in the process. The highway cut off the north end of the city.

Over the years, the artery became increasingly congested, worn down and uglier. The state could have rehabilitated it, but a group of engineers, planners and political leaders campaigned to build an underground tunnel and replace the elevated highway with parks.

The idea eventually won state and federal approval, and the Big Dig was born.

From the beginning, it was decided the project should disrupt the city as little as possible.

It was an expensive decision, but an unavoidable one, contends Frederick Salvucci, former secretary of transportation for the state and a guiding force behind the project.

"The city of Boston has lived with this monstrosity (the elevated highway) for decades because the highway agency decided to spend their money in this fashion," said Salvucci, now a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He argues that ripping apart neighborhoods to make room for a road essentially puts the societal cost of building the project on people in the path of construction. "This practice of shifting costs to other parties is a very bad habit."

In the case of the Big Dig, officials took the approach of minimizing the effects of construction as much as possible.

Working downtown

One early, costly decision was to keep traffic moving uninterrupted during construction. This was achieved in part by digging the tunnel directly underneath the elevated highway, while traffic kept going on top.

An enormous temporary support structure made from steel beams keeps the artery in place while tons of dirt are removed from underneath.

It's expensive work, as Sean Curley demonstrated recently.

Driving along the elevated artery through Boston, Curley pointed out the starting point for a tunnel section his company is building underneath the highway, not far from the historic Customs House. It took only seconds to travel the length of his project.

"If you sneezed, that was $500 million," said Curley, a project engineer for J.F. White Contracting, one of several contractors working on the Big Dig.

That's a half-billion dollars for a quarter-mile of tunnel and six ramps hacked through one of the most dense urban areas in the country.

Their relatively small part of the overall project shows how massive an undertaking it is. At the peak of its contract, J.F. White had 400 people working on its short section of tunnel, in addition to 50 engineers. They worked up to 12-hour days, six days a week. A design document 1,400 pages thick has guided their effort, which started five years ago.

The task was complicated by having to move a spider web of utilities while digging: power lines, water lines, fiber-optic cable.

"The simple thing to do," said Stephen Barlow, chief operating officer for J.F. White, "would be to shut down traffic through Boston and tear it (the artery) down. But of course you can't do that."

So they keep traffic going, spray water to keep down dust and complaints, and put up tall, blue wooden walls covered in thick blankets to absorb noise.

Barlow says his outfit works hard to maintain good relations with its neighbors. They even spent $1,000 to send a group of nearby residents on a tour of fall foliage.

"It cost us $1,000, but it saved us $100,000 worth of headaches," Barlow said.

Keeping people happy

That's a small example of a major Big Dig expense: keeping people happy.

Construction types call it "mitigation." That's a catch-all word that describes billions spent to minimize disruption to the city while the work takes place, and to deal with concerns about the environment.

"You go into the permitting process and the first thing the neighbors say is, 'We want you to hire a bunch of police details, and we want you to water any place you've got exposed dirt every night.' Then it turns out you're in an archaeologically sensitive area, and the historical society says you have to hire a bunch of archaeologists to go through the site," said David Luberoff, a Big Dig expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"Those start to add up. Then somebody says, 'Gee, it looks like you might be encroaching on parkland.' Then you say, 'How about we craft an agreement that we'll build parkland?' Now it's getting expensive."

Big Dig officials pin about $3 billion on those types of expenses.

One specific example: The Big Dig schedule assumed workers could use jackhammers all they wanted. They assumed wrong. "When you work close to residents, you need to recognize you aren't going to jackhammer 24 hours a day," said Bill Edwards, budget manager for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the joint venture that manages the Big Dig.

"You had to recognize you need to jackhammer less. Therefore, you have to work more Saturdays. When you work on Saturdays, you pay a premium."

Design and delay

In addition to money spent to keep the peace, the Big Dig also had major changes in design that added billions to the cost.

Perhaps the most notable example was the initial proposal for a bridge across the Charles River, a concept known as "Scheme Z."

The idea generated tremendous public opposition. Critics said it would be an eyesore with a corkscrew maze of overlapping lanes and ramps.

The outcry led to several years of delay while experts went through extensive public deliberations to find another solution. Eventually they came up with the cable-stayed Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which has become one of the more visible and popular parts of the Big Dig.

It's the type of problem megaprojects are known to encounter, and one of the most expensive.

The delay, and a more expensive design to replace Scheme Z, is believed to have added more than $1 billion to the cost of the project.

What's up in Washington?

Doug MacDonald watched the Big Dig for years while overseeing his own megaproject, a multibillion-dollar cleanup of Boston Harbor. MacDonald, who became head of Washington's DOT in April 2001, got wide acclaim for delivering the Boston work on time and within budget.

He argues that the Big Dig is very different from projects Washington is contemplating.

In particular, he notes that the majority of money that pays for the Big Dig — roughly 60 percent — comes from the federal government. The cost overruns in Boston were "more spectator sport than deep, personal pocketbook impact," he said. "It was someone else's money."

In Washington, most of the money for megaprojects is expected to come from state and local taxes. Experts say that's likely to lead to intense public scrutiny of everything the DOT does.

MacDonald also notes his agency has adjusted its cost estimates for inflation, carefully examined potential risks that could drive up costs and made conservative allowances.

"The Boston project was subject to a very inadequate early cost estimate because very little provision was made for the kinds of risk that would develop in the course of project," he said.

In other words, MacDonald believes Washington can deliver megaprojects, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct proposal, without going over budget.

As a case in point, he cites dealing with traffic on Alaskan Way.

Boston decided to keep traffic moving during construction, "as if the project, for all practical purposes, wasn't there," MacDonald said. "That was an exceedingly expensive choice."

The DOT will be "very careful" about what it promises in terms of keeping traffic moving, he said.

Given MacDonald's track record with the Boston Harbor cleanup, he might be able to deliver what he promises, Hallenbeck said. "(He) might be the right guy to hold the dollar value line. It's in his nature."

The Big Dig is expected to wrap up in 2004, and advocates say it will be worth the money, improving traffic flow through Boston, removing the green monster and putting a large park system in its place.

Critics, such as former state Inspector General Robert Cerasoli, consider it a waste of money.

"What is going to end up happening is, instead of the road being backed up now with people sitting outside sucking up fumes, they're going to be sitting in a tunnel sucking up fumes.

"I think people are going to be incredibly surprised after a year or two when they're sitting in a tunnel saying, 'Wasn't this supposed to solve the problem?' "

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or

Information in this article, originally published October 21, was corrected October 22. A previous version of this story misspelled Sean Curleys last name in an article about Bostons Big Dig project. Curley is a project engineer for J.F. White Contracting, one of several contractors on the project.


Get home delivery today!