Boston's Big Dig digs a political hole

While megaprojects often run over budget, this one has numbers large enough to draw Washington's ire.

From the pyramids of Egypt to the Alaska Pipeline, huge public-works projects have always been a source of controversy and consternation.

Rarely do they come in on time - or on budget.

True, the Pharaohs had ways of motivating workers that can't be found in Emily Post. Today, the modern equivalent is the political fight over money and management.

Nowhere is this clash now more evident than over that vast Lego set of tubes, tunnels, and girders know as Boston's Big Dig. The latest figures show this once $2.5 billion highway project now at $13.6 billion, causing the federal government - which is paying a major portion of the cost - to finally step in.

The US Transportation Department released a scathing audit this week, charging Big Dig officials with misleading federal officials on Feb. 1 that the project would cost $10.8 billion, and divulging later the same day that it could cost an additional $1.4 billion.

"It stands as one of the most flagrant breaches of the integrity of the federal-state partnership in the history of the nearly 85-year-old federal-aid highway program," the audit said.

Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) fired the head of the Big Dig, James Kerasiotes, just minutes after meeting with federal highway officials. But that does not solve the larger issue of how to complete projects of this magnitude on schedule and on budget.

"Statistics show that more and more of the world's work is done in big projects, so we better pay attention," says Frank Davidson, chairman of the International Association of Macro Engineering Societies and a former engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Monster engineering projects

Experts say at least 30 megaprojects - those estimated at more than $10 billion - are under way around the world. The most expensive, the Three Gorges Dam in China, will cost $86 billion. Other projects include digging an inner Nile River and enlarging the Panama Canal.

Projects of this size require an incredible amount of planning. The Three Gorges Dam took 30 years to address environmental, social, and other concerns before work even began - and remains controversial to this day for the forced relocation of vast numbers of people. Still, the project, now half done, is on schedule, according to one engineer involved.

"So it can be done. It just takes discipline, strict control, and planning," says Ernest Frankel, a professor emeritus at MIT's school of engineering who is working on the river project.

The Big Dig, he points out, is the worst example of cost overrun he's ever seen. He and his colleagues warned Massachusetts officials that the project could not be done for the state's initial estimate of $2.5 billion. Which raises a larger point: While government officials often claim - rightly - that added time and costs are necessary on big projects, critics say authorities too often low-ball construction schedules and estimates to gain funding and public support.

"To understate it to the tune of 600 percent is inexcusable," says Dr. Finkel. "Everybody lied from the very beginning when they wanted to get it through the legislature."

The Big Dig is becoming comparable in cost to the Chunnel, the tunnel that connects England and France. It started at an estimated $6.2 billion and finished at $15 billion. But engineers were working with completely new technology, says Finkel. "No one had dug tunnels that deep or that long in the world."

Moreover, the Chunnel's cost overruns came, in large part, from financing costs - officials thought they could borrow money cheaper. The Big Dig is all engineering cost overruns, "and that's much more difficult to justify," he says.

Other big public-works projects have taught painful lessons as well. The Alaska oil pipeline, initially estimated at $8 billion, ended up costing $14.2 billion. The tepee-topped Denver Airport started at $1.5 billion and wound up costing $6 billion.

The Los Angeles light-rail system was originally scheduled to cost $200 million. It required $900 million. In Washington - the source of so much indignation toward Massachusetts - the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center started out at $362 million and ended up at $818 million.

"It is extremely difficult to find a project that doesn't escalate and go beyond estimates," says Jeffrey Stine, curator of engineering and environmental history at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Improper fractions

Still, when the cost overruns amount to billions, there is little sympathy for the rising arithmetic. To make matters worse, the project was launched when the Democrats were in control of Congress and now the Republicans control the purse strings.

"With only 7.5 miles of highway, it might have been cheaper to pave this thing in gold," says Jim Campi of Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington. The other problem, he says is that "money winds up not going to states that need it, but to states with the biggest political pull. It just so happens that Tip O'Neill had tremendous pull," he says of former House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill of Massachusetts who helped shepherd the project through Congress.

But in an era of fiscal responsibility and environmental restraint, some see the Big Dig as one of the last megatransportation projects.

"The priorities of today seem to be maintain and rehabilitate and upgrade existing facilities rather than build new facilities," says Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp. in Washington.

While Dr. Davidson agrees that today's priorities have changed, he believes transportation and water-supply issues will continue to dominate major works projects in the future.

What's needed to keep them under control, he says, is a national macroengineering commission made up of some of the best minds in the country. The group could provide realistic cost estimates to potential projects and act as a mediator when things start to go bad.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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