Boston's 'Big Dig' offers lessons in budgeting, management


by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

Posted on February 23, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 23 at 11:39 PM

BOSTON -- If you hop on I-90 in Seattle and drive East for a few days, you will eventually end up in Boston, where you can sail through a tunnel that runs beneath the city's downtown -- a product of the infamous Big Dig project.

For more than 10 years now, Washington planners and policymakers have been looking at that project to see what lessons can be learned before the state replaces the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel.

First and foremost, officials at the Washington Department of Transportation, who visited Boston (along with many other projects around the country) about a decade ago, feel the state needs to be a strong owner of the project.  Many experts feel that private companies had too much power in Boston, leading to management issues. 

"The buck stops with the Washington Department of Transportation with this project," said David Dye, deputy secretary at WSDOT.

Initial estimates put the Big Dig project at $2.6 billion, but when it was all said and done, the project cost nearly $15 billion, a feat Washington does not even want to come close to repeating.

David Luberoff, an expert in megaprojects who serves as executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard Kennedy School, has been fielding Viaduct-related questions for years now.  It's good, he said, that Washington is relying far less on federal funds.

"People tend to be much more cautious about their estimates when they're using their own money," he said.

The federal government was initially supposed to pay 90 percent of the Big Dig's tab, but as the project's costs grew, Congress eventually capped its contribution, forcing Massachusetts to pick up the rest of the tab.

Doug MacDonald knows both projects quite well.  He served as Washington's Transportation secretary and before that, he lived in Boston, watching the Big Dig while managing a different project.

"WSDOT looked at the Big Dig and it said, one of the things you can do better early on is analyze, 'What could go wrong?'" MacDonald said.

By analyzing potential risks, WSDOT cautiously came up with a $3.1 billion budget, including $300 million from the Port of Seattle.  That total includes contingency funds.  But even the state admits that the odds of hitting that number are 60 percent; it could go over or under.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the project costs more than what people estimate," Luberoff said.  "I would be surprised if it had cost overruns that were in Big-Dig magnitude."

The Big Dig proved that megaproject budgets can quickly climb.  Costs soared in Boston after crews spent years relocating utilities and dealing with environmental issues, including massive amounts of soil testing, just below the surface.  Many of those issues occur in the first 15 to 20 feet below the surface, experts said.  Washington hopes to avoid many of those obstacles by boring a 57-foot tunnel much deeper.

Still, there are always unknowns when digging below a city.

"Anybody who's ever done a renovation project in an old house knows that things happen along the way where you just discover things you couldn't know until you were in the ground," Luberoff said.

For all the money and time burned in the Big Dig, perhaps the greatest cost was a life.  A woman died while riding in the passenger seat of a car in 2006 after a concrete ceiling panel in the tunnel collapsed.

To many, the collapse and other design flaws were a symptom of management issues as the project progressed.  Some felt private parties had too much power.  There were also concerns the government was not being fully transparent.

"Sometimes public officials get wrapped up in wanting to get it done and meet a certain deadline," said Richard Dimino, president and CEO of an organization that was initially tasked with helping businesses survive the Big Dig.  "I'd rather see public officials talk to the public and say, 'We need more time and we want to get it right.'"

Despite the Big Dig's rocky road, people in Boston are starting to embrace the final product, including the greenway that sits above the tunnel, stretching for 1.5 miles.  The public space offers a glimpse into what Seattle's waterfront might look like once the Viaduct is gone.

A nonprofit known as the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy operates the parks.  It is funded through a mix of public and private dollars.

Representatives from the conservancy admit the parks in Boston got a late start because, early on, no one was put in charge of that element, and greenway plans were not part of the initial Big Dig plans.

"That came late in the game here," said Steve Anderson, director of park operations for the greenway.  "It all works great, but it came very late."

The recession also put a crimp in fund-raising plans, expert said. 

Seattle city planners have studied what happened in Boston and feel they are well ahead.  They have already unveiled possible design plans to the public, which include numerous parks and walkways -- even thermal pools. 

But it is still unclear exactly how much the waterfront development will cost and where the money will come from.  And everything hinges on finding money to replace Seattle's aging seawall.

"We need to avoid the mistake in Boston of waiting too long," MacDonald said.  "And we can do that, but we've got to get going."

It was not easy, but Boston eventually created a final product that has improved traffic and reconnected the city with its waterfront.  Now Seattle will try to get there on time and on budget.

An expert review panel recently finished a report, which found that the Viaduct replacement project's budget and schedule are currently on track, WSDOT said.  If all goes as planned, the new tunnel will open sometime in 2015, the rest of the Viaduct will be demolished and removed in 2016 and some of the waterfront development will become a reality in 2018.