Will Big Dig woes deter other megaprojects?

Leaks in the $15 billion tunnel project raise questions about oversight, which may affect plans in other cities.

The two faces of this city's "Big Dig" have long existed in diametrical opposition. Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project, a maze of underground roads and bridges, was at once hailed an ingenious marvel - and just as quickly condemned an engineering mess.

Last month, as the Big Dig was feted for its innovation by a local nonprofit, its walls were springing leaks. Lots of them.

As state legislators last week grilled contractors about a major breach in a tunnel this fall that backed up traffic for 10 miles, their criticism hinted at the larger question of whether the $14.6 billion project will impact future megaprojects nationwide. Beyond leaks, state lawyers announced this week they plan to file a $100 million lawsuit against Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project's private manager, for mismanagement.

The Federal Highway Administration lists 23 major highway projects under way or set to begin to replace or repair aging infrastructures and ease congestion. But will the political and economic fallout from cost overruns, delays - and now leaks - have far-reaching impact?

Certainly, experts say, the project is teeming with lessons - from specific engineering breakthroughs to public relations strategies. But as public works remain notorious for going awry, recent setbacks are likely to give some people pause - and could ultimately alter the way future projects are designed and built across the nation.

"It's going to be hard to do anything like [the Big Dig] again, until we have a lot more confidence that such projects will be done properly and that taxpayers' money will be going to the best possible place," says Gregory Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance.

When the Big Dig was conceived, and finally begun in the mid-1980s, it drew engineers the world over, eager to learn the particulars of building slurry walls or keeping cities bustling when thousands of workers toil below. No one expected mistakes wouldn't be made.

But beyond those lessons lies a larger debate about design and construction - and whether traditional models of bidding to the lowest contractor is working.

"The Big Dig is a big lesson in an extreme case of failure of the traditional model," says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation and an advocate of the "design-build model," a process in which contractors first design and then eventually build a model.

Even though officials are still reluctant to shift away from the traditional model of awarding the project to the lowest bidder, the design-build model is not new at all, say experts, pointing to the Taj Mahal and pyramids of Egypt as projects done in this manner. Many advocates also point to Interstate 15in Salt Lake City, the largest public design-build project, built in preparation for the2002 Winter Olympics. But design-build is still rare in large public works. Some state legislatures don't even allow such a model.

In the meantime, Big Dig woes have been watched as other cities decide whether to break ground on their megaprojects. Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated highway that runs along the waterfront, has been aging and in need of repair, says David Luberoff, who studies megaprojects at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Seattle residents had looked to Boston while weighing whether replacing the viaduct with a tunnel to connect the city with the waterfront was worth the cost. Officials there announced this week that the project, estimated to take up to eight years and $4.1 billion, will proceed.

And if Seattle is prepared to learn all lessons offered by Boston's waterfront project, final costs could climb well above those estimates. The Big Dig's final cost turned out to be more than five timesof the original projection of $2.6 billion.

At a hearing last week at the Massachusetts State House, Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello said that among the most important lessons learned is the need for full disclosure. But public information is not expected to change dramatically. Indeed, many projects would never get started if worst-case scenarios were released. That was true of the Westway projectin New York City in the 80s, said Mr. Amorello at the hearing.

Says Cohen: "If [Bostonians] knew how much [the Big Dig] would have cost in the '80s, it probably wouldn't have gotten built."

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