By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Thinking out loud

For years now, we’ve heard what an engineering triumph the Big Dig is. We are supposed to marvel at its complexity, and hail the skill of those who put it together.

Now, that may all be warranted. But, for some reason, I can’t help but think about the Callahan and Sumner tunnels, and all those century-old tunnels used by the subway system. They’ve worked from the day they opened, and I can’t think of a structural disaster that’s ever befallen any of them.

So why is the Big Dig so different?

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Glue and concrete


“Deadly politics”


  1. Al Toid

    Corruption, Greed and good old fashioned F-ups?

  2. Anonymous

    Well, to be fair, the O’Neill tunnel was built underneath a modern metropolis and an old, elevated highway, all of which had to stay open and functional at all times while the underground highway was built. In addition, when building this tunnel they had to cope with numerous subway tunnels and (I’m assuming) more underground utilities than they had in the past. Moreover, I wouldn’t say this was a “structural” disaster — a structural disaster implies to me the actual tunnel itself collapsing.However, it is interesting that the location where this collapse occurred is at a place where it’s not even a tunnel — it’s not underground. They didn’t face the challenges they had when building the O’Neill tunnel, and they didn’t have the same issues that the Ted Williams tunnel had.Otherwise, I agree with Al Toid. – geoff

  3. another face at zanzibar

    Dan,Because it was far more complex and much harder to build. That in itself should’ve been reason enough NOT to build it. Imagine what $14 billion could’ve done to public transportation in the region. This area has a history of misguided road projects (some built, others unbuilt), chronicled well here:

  4. Al Toid

    Geoff, I’ll fully admit that my response was totally off the cuff. And that you’re right, it was an extremely complicated project — not least because, if I remember correctly, some of the requirements changed partway through, such as when they shoe-horned in the silver-line change into the project, etc…But putting in the massive multi-ton ‘drop ceilings’ for wont of a better description to hide the fans or to ignore standard quality assurance practices, as we’re seeing in the coverage is worse than shameful. It’s just insane.-A

  5. another face at zanzibar

    Why were we building a highway (actually, not just building a highway, but threading one through one of the busiest cities in America–underground!) through a city, thereby encouraging people to drive to and through the city? I never understood that. Sure, the engineering was breathtaking (it had to be; this was almost impossible to do–maybe for a good reason). And let’s remember, if the engineers had their way, we would’ve been saddled with Scheme Z.

  6. Anonymous

    What is in common with all those “old” tunnels…no environmental impact statements, no project labor agreements, public employees not represented by unions, no hazardous waste disposal requirements, no OSHA, no minority set-asides…etc.

  7. Lewis

    Living in Eastie I wonder the same thing since the Great Tunnel Fiasco of ’06 began. The Callahan/Sumner tunnels are old and have their own water issues and a dire need of a paving project. Other than the occasional fire or small, ceramic tiles falling there has been no issues.And taking the Blue Line to Maverick everyday and remembering that this was one of the first mass transit tunnels created in the US, how’s the structural integrity of that? Maybe the MBTA is really on top of inspection and repairs… One can only hope.

  8. Aaron Read

    Methinks you forget the time the Muddy River flooded out the main Green Line tunnel in October of 1996. I was living in Kenmore Square at the time and remember it vividly…it had rained for two weeks straight, not unlike earlier this year. The upshot was the Green Line was effectively shut down for several weeks, and afterwards there was no signaling system so it ran at about 10-20% efficiency for MONTHS afterwards. UGH!

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron — I remember it well, but I think the equivalent would be if the flood had caused tunnel to cave in.

  10. Aaron Read

    Ehhh…okay, I can see that. Or if the flood had trapped a trolley and some people drowned. Although I seem to remember they were hustling people out of the tunnels post haste as the water level started rising quickly, so that might’ve been a closer call than the MBTA would like us to remember.Nevertheless, I don’t really trust all those subway tunnels much more than the Big Dig. In just one of many examples, every time it rains there’s a half dozen little rivers in the track pit at the Kendall Square station. And there’s ample evidence of leaks through cracks in the ceiling at many stops throughout the system. Those don’t make me feel very safe either.And of course, let’s not forget Boston’s previous “biggest unsafe boondoogle ever”…the UMass Boston parking garage. People actually went to prison over that one, didn’t they? Wasn’t there a rousing chorus of “never again” on that one? I can’t wait until the whole thing collapses and kills a few thousand commuter students in the process. 🙁

  11. Anonymous

    if you listen to a useful audio interview on the herald web site today conducted with the author of the book “Big Dig” you’ll hear that the ceiling panels are intended to guide hurricane force winds generated by immense fans in the event of a calamity like an explosion or horrific fire in the tunnel that leads to heavy smoke and fumes. the fans would flush these gales of air along the 4-foot-high venting spaces above the concrete panels, and in doing so bad air would be sucked from the tunnel floor through plenums cut into the dropped ceiling panels, and whisked out of the tunnel. without the panels and the large venting area they enclose, the air would have to be flushed through the tunnel itself, likely overturning cars and blowing humans around like paper dolls. heavy concrete is used instead of say fiberglass or saran wrap because they withstand the vibrations better. of course, if they are not affixed well to being with, the whole house of cards is pretty well doomed. but in theory at least the venting area makes sense and concrete is needed in event of worst-case scenario.

  12. Anonymous

    What is in common with all those “old” tunnels…no environmental impact statements, no project labor agreements, public employees not represented by unions, no hazardous waste disposal requirements, no OSHA, no minority set-asides…etc.Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Callahan opened in 1961. In any case, the real issue seems to be utter lack of adherence to safety standards.What’s even more interesting is the Big Dig project happened under a Republican administration with supervision by Bechtel and Modern Continental, both firms with strong Republican ties…

  13. Steve

    Y’know, Anon 3:39, it’s wrong to lay this at the feet of one party or another. Nothing happens in Massachusetts without the acquiesence of Democrats, whether they control the governor’s office or not.I think you know that, you just want to try to label this “Republican”. I don’t think it’s smart politics – the charge won’t stick.There’s enough odious stuff around that’s legitimately connected to “the Republicans”. No need to stretch to make the point.

  14. Anonymous

    Steve,Read it into what you want. I was reacting to the previous anon. blaming this on “liberal” programs rather then trying to pin it on one party or another. I’d even forgotten that OSHA was a Nixon era project.Again, the real issue remains utter lack of adherence to safety standards.

  15. Charles Foster Kane

    I find all of this political blaming fascinating. In any case, the simplest explanations are usually the best: either (a) the engineering logic was faulty, (b) the installation of the bolts wasn’t done correctly, (c) the concrete into which the bolts were inserted was substandard, or (d) the epoxy used to secure the bolts failed, or (e) some combination of the preceding. It could well be that an inspector was on the take or the bolts never had adequate testing once installed, but the political blaming doesn’t have much of anything to do with the tragedy.This isn’t to stay that Matt Amorello doesn’t need to resign, which, as a piece of political theater, would make people feel better, but blaming Democrats or Republicans is crazy. Ultimately Bechtel, which allegedly has the expertise to supervise a project like this and ensure the safety of the project has a lot to answer for and out of all parties involved has been the quietest which I don’t think is a coincidence.

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