Rendered Fat Content

Think The Big Dig Was A Failure? Think Again!

Think Boston's Big Dig project was a failure? Think again.

Some might be under the mistaken impression that the Big Dig was just a large construction project. It wasn't. Sure, it featured a lot of construction work, much of it stuff that had quite literally never been tried before or never tried on such a scale. But as I've been saying for years and years, the greatest danger in projects, whether they be "construction" projects or "software" projects comes in the label we casually assign to the effort.

Big Dig has a lot of potential meanings, from large insult to deep pit, to huge bite.

Hey, this was complicated stuff. A third of the cost was spent on "mitigation." Mitigation is comprised of all that stuff that creates support for the effort. The helping others find their project within your project. And The Big Dig did a marvelous job of gaining initial support.

An article entitled Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig by Nicole Gelinasin appears in the Autumn 2007 issue of City Journal. Quoting from that article:

"Mitigation made downtown businesses happy, promising not to shut down any of the Central Artery’s six lanes during construction, and promising further that companies such as Fidelity Investments wouldn’t lack electricity or telephones for even a few hours as contractors dug up miles of utilities to make room for underground highways. Mitigation made Gillette, Boston’s biggest manufacturer, happy, working with the company to marry its complicated underwater infrastructure to the Big Dig’s. Mitigation made the post office happy, building temporary roads to a distribution station. Mitigation made airport neighbors happy, vowing that cars from the airport tunnel wouldn’t exit onto residential land. Mitigation also made environmentalists happy with its promise to preserve as open space three-quarters of the land that the Artery’s demolition would create (the highway tunnels that would run underneath couldn’t support heavy construction, anyway). It made more ambitious environmentalists happy, promising to improve mass transit and to use some of the excavated dirt—which, because it had saltwater in it, couldn’t be dumped inland—to transform a Boston Harbor island from a noxious landfill into a beachfront park. It made archaeologists happy, paying to catalog artifacts dating back to colonial days. It didn’t make rats happy: after near-hysteria that construction would unleash vermin whose underground lairs also dated to colonial days, the project launched an aggressive rodent-control program.

"The mitigation, some of which was sensible, tempered even reasonable criticism of the Big Dig. Few locals voiced skepticism during planning. Once you got your own interest protected, you kept quiet, to make sure that the project, free of local opposition, would win federal funding. Thanks largely to mitigation efforts, more than 80 percent of Boston residents and nearly two-thirds of state residents supported the Big Dig in its early years."

Gelinasin speaks of colossal mismanagement and I wonder how it might have been better managed, given the contradictions that existed at the time. There are lessons here for future Digs, but I have to wonder what they might be. How would you organize an innovative thirty year effort? My sense is that the effort was essentially unmanagable in the context within which it occurred. And also, that we'll have to wait perhaps thirty years to determine its success. By then, how the development was managed will be a fading memory. Performance over time will be the final judge.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Made in RapidWeaver