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Reflections on the Big Dig

Reflections on the Big Dig

This video was recorded at MIT World Series: Engineering Systems Symposium 2004. Sometimes good projects go bad, and other times, a bad project turns out well. Few people can pass such judgments better than Fred Salvucci, who was a key instigator of Boston's "Big Dig" project. This behemoth of civil engineering, first imagined in the 1970s, involved eliminating a crumbling and congested elevated highway that rammed through the heart of Boston. The new design called for an underground highway that would improve traffic gridlock, at a cost of 6 billion, with an estimated completion date of 2000. Nearing completion in late 2004, the Big Dig's price tag is around $15 billion. What went wrong? Salvucci lays out a cautionary tale for planners: "policy blunders" permitted a four-year delay while people debated the aesthetics of a bridge crossing the Charles River; intelligent transportation technology emerged and had to be added on to the design; and worst, ballooning costs were disguised by deferring items like upkeep. "We may need gondolas because without maintenance, (the highway) may flood," says Salvucci. For a brighter ending, Salvucci cites the Boston Harbor clean up. Faced with a court order, absence of federal funding, and with what Salvucci calls "absurd standards" (those normally applied to rivers used to supply drinking water), the project managed to stay within its $6 billion budget and finish on time. Says Salvucci, "I doubt there's as well implemented a project in the U.S. as what was pulled off with the Boston Harbor clean up."

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