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

Original sin and the Big Dig

The importance of Sean Murphy’s story in yesterday’s Globe is that it reinforces a gnawing fear many of us experience every time we drive through the O’Neill Tunnel — that today may be the day all hell breaks loose, and that we’ll be buried alive under tons of water-logged dirt.

Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps. Officials whom Murphy interviewed seek to assure us that the ongoing mini-flood inside the tunnel is no threat to safety. But when we learn that “state officials acknowledged there is already surface rusting on 10 percent of the massive steel girders in the ceiling,” it’s hard to believe those reassurances.

The picture I take away from this is that of government officials knowing they have a potential catastrophe on their hands and having absolutely no idea of what to do about it. Even if you could close it and start over — and think about the incredible disruption to the region’s economy — where would you ever find the money?

The original sin was revealed in this 2004 story, by then-Globe reporter Raphael Lewis with an assist from Murphy. A watertight tunnel required a proven, two-layer approach — a tube within a tube, essentially. But once the tunnel designers realized they didn’t have room to do it right, they decided to do it wrong, and to brag about how smart and innovative they were. Thus we have a single tube, leaking from the sides and the top.

Moving forward, the incentives are all wrong. Especially during these early years of the Big Dig, the odds of catastrophic failure are no doubt pretty long. Officialdom has every reason to kick the can down the road, reasonably secure in the knowledge that we can get by for now. If Gov. Deval Patrick were to take drastic, disruptive action without a compelling reason, he’d be excoriated for creating a one-man recession.

Yet who knows what the truth is? It’s likely that even those studying the tunnel most closely don’t know whether it will last 25 years, the timeline in Murphy’s story, or 25 months. (And how do you like that 25-year figure? If it had opened in 1982, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me, we’d be looking at replacing it now.)

Even though the problem was unrelated to the leaks, we’ve all known since Melina Del Valle was crushed to death that something had gone horribly wrong with the Big Dig. In the absence of any good ideas for fixing it, we’ll all be playing Massachusetts Roulette every time we drive through it.

There may come a time, if it hasn’t already arrived, that the Big Dig will be viewed as the most blatant example of government incompetence in our history. And before you start sharpening your ideological swords, it’s unclear whether the problem was too much government or not enough. Certainly there should have been far more oversight of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private partnership given carte blanche to design and build the project.

What a disaster.

Photo (cc) by Scutter. Some rights reserved.

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  1. bostonph

    Robert Keough wrote a [nice summary the Big Dig management problems last summer. Kerasiotes comes off particularly badly, but the crux of Keough’s argument is this:When it comes time to assess blame, two vital and related elements of the Big Dig’s political history should get their rightful share: the selection, over the years, of top managers with wildly different skills, styles, and priorities and the delegation of the Big Dig, like other expensive and politically unpopular tasks, to a quasi-independent entity-in this case, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

  2. aging cynic

    Dan,saying there are “237 leaks” is like those National Enquirer weight loss ads where the obese woman proudly brags of losing “14 inches” without mentioning that it was in 14 places. The number is not necessarily meaningful to those of us lacking MIT degrees. If the tunnel is structurally sound, adding to the community’s cynicism is not productive. If it isn’t, shut it down before someone else dies. A town with Boston’s brainpower should be able to differentiate between the two. While the Big Dig was noteworthy, it wasn’t so unique that engineers from around the world can’t determine whether tabloid bloviating is called for. Buyer’s remorse? Yes. End of the regional lifestyle as we know it? Hardly.

  3. Anonymous

    Having had many off-the-record conversations with politicians, engineering experts and others with first- and second-hand knowledge of how this whole debacle went down, I’m agreeing with Dan’s take on this. The pols will never speak publicly about this truly looming disaster. Do Lewis, Murphy and others (and I’d include myself if I had any public credibility) have an obligation to make the public more aware of how bad the tunnels potentially are?

  4. Anonymous

    “But once the tunnel designers realized they didn’t have room to do it right, they decided to do it wrong…”Well…not exactly. The tunnel designers’ client, the state, wanted a tunnel. The designers could have said, “sorry, live with the Central Artery” but that’s not what the client wanted. The client wanted a way to build a tunnel. They were given one. Whether there are leaks is a different issue then whether it will fall down, or if the leaks that exist could ever make it fall down. The public deserves to understand this, but you playing Chicken Little doesn’t provide any insight.

  5. Bruce

    “…it’s unclear whether the problem was too much government or not enough.”As someone who spent 10 years working on that project, I can tell you there’s nothing unclear about it.”…there should have been far more oversight of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private partnership given carte blanche to design and build the project.”It wasn’t the amount of oversight that screwed things up, it was the lack of quality oversight. That project had inspectors and inspection reports coming out its ass.IMO, if B/PB had been allowed to bring in their own people and run things their way, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.Massachusetts politics destroyed that project before the first excavator hit the dirt.Perhaps it’s time for another “Inside Dirt” post.

  6. Anonymous

    and somehow, Teflon Fred Salvucci is still a genius, go figure…

  7. Anonymous

    Dan Kennedy comes from the ilk of the Globe and yellow journalism personified. The Big Dig tunnels are structurally sound, “robustly designed and constructed”; refer to the Stem to Stern report by Wis Janney. They do leak because they are an aggressively designed tunnel that was an engineering compromise to meet needs of the client (Mass). They leak as do all tunnels but even given the unique design, the leakage is at 25% of industry performance standards for other tunnels. For perspective, a garden hose flowing full (not full pressure, just full stream) is equivalent to 5 gal/minute. Some quick math (x60x24x30) will get this to a volume of 216,000 gal/month. This results in a lot of water from a small leak in a massive structure. Now 10% surface rusting is just that, surface rusting or loss of paint protective coating. The tunnels are 5 years old and underground conditions are an aggressive environment for paint systems. Next time you pass under a bridge look up and approximate the % of rust you see on the steel, never mind the real scary part; actual corrosion and what is called loss of section (or thickness), or deterioration of the concrete supports or under deck, also does the bridge have netting or timber to catch the falling concrete? Tunnels need to be maintained, something that Mass doesn’t understand.Statements of impending doom and collapse of tunnel elements is just irresponsible journalism and is akin to yelling fire in a crowded theatre, I only wish shoddy journalism was prosecuted half as much as shoddy journalists like to use the word shoddy.Let’s deal with some Big Dig facts. B/PB was hired by the MHD in 1986 to commence conceptual design to support the environmental permitting process (DEIS, EIS, SEIS, and FEIS culminating with the Fed Record of Decision). Once the environmental process was well along B/PB took on other responsibilities for the MHD, including preliminary design, administrative support for the MHD’s quality based selection (all state personnel) selection of the final designers, administrative management of the final design contracts (not performing the final design), administrative management of the construction bid/award process (low bid wins), administrative management of the construction contracts, and performance of Quality Assurance (ensuring that the contractors develop and implement a satisfactory Quality Control).As the management consultant it was B/PB’s job to perform any support function or service incorporated into the MHD contract called the scope of services. B/PB operating in the unique role of MHD’s authorized representative for the design and construction contracts was charged with the administrative management of the contracts; coordination, and inter-contract management B/PB could not make fiduciary decisions of changes in scope or schedule, these were reserved for the MHD/MTA project team. By the way the ratio between MHD/MTA personnel was approximately 1:10 for the life of the project.So in review; B/PB did not perform the design for the project as design was performed by the final design teams who own their designs under contract to MHD/MTA, B/PB did not build the project as construction was performed by general contractors under direct contract to MHD/MTA.The poster “Bruce” was right, if the project had been staffed they way B/PB wanted there would not be as many problems. If Mass had provided the appropriate level political leadership and ownership of the project it would have been a much better project. If heavy handed leaders like Kerasiotis had listened and not squashed the warnings and advice they had been given, the project’s use of Federal Funds wouldn’t have been capped and he wouldn’t have been terminated by Cellucci.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 11:50: Thank you. I feel so much better now.

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