City Journal: Antique Road Show

By Shannon Mullen | Boston Magazine |

The feds loved our tunnels so much they touted the Big Dig across the U.S. Seemed like a good idea at the time.


Ah, those were the days. Back before the leaks and the falling concrete slabs, federal highway officials were more than just satisfied with the work done on the Big Dig—they were positively in love with it. So enamored of the massive public transit marvel was the Federal Highway Administration that the agency put together a traveling road show: the Innovations and Advancements Program, which sought to take Boston’s engineering firsts and novel management models to other cities.

The feds’ 12-part PowerPoint presentation makes for interesting reading these days. In a particularly trenchant tragicomic twist, it touts such concepts as “innovative contracting” and the project’s “day-to-day management” system for accountability in design and construction. An accompanying brochure even brags that the Big Dig was the first highway project to formally use a “dynamic finance plan,” which is bureaucrat-speak for an adjustable price tag.

Still, the show’s early reviews were good. Ohio officials took a peek when planning urban highway upgrades, finding guidance for their state’s otherwise uncharted territory of transportation megaprojects. “It was nice,” says Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Joel Hunt, “to have someone show us that it can be done.” Several years ago, Connecticut officials saw a portion of the presentation on how contractors dug Boston’s tunnels without disrupting surface traffic, and copied the design for a project of their own.

Not surprisingly, some states are now steering clear of certain Big Dig innovations. Washington State structural engineer Harvey Coffman says officials drawing up plans for an I-90-type tunnel in Seattle are keeping a close eye on investigations into design flaws here. “We’re not going to put up a system that’s known to fail,” he says sensibly.

For its part, the FHWA isn’t scrapping its Innovations and Advancements Program. And the agency is mum on whether it’s got plans for a new section: Big Dig Blunders.