The Big Dig


No discussion of the failure rate of megaprojects would be complete without a careful look at Boston’s Big Dig, the largest and most challenging highway project in the history of the United States. Few megaprojects have been accused by so many of taking longer and costing more than the public expected other than the infamous Big Dig.

Failed Megaproject


The Central Artery/Tunnel Project commonly known as the Big Dig, was the megaproject in Boston that rerouted Interstate 93 into the 1.5-mile Thomas P O’Neill Tunnel. Planning began in 1982, and the construction work was carried out between 1991 and 2006. Originally scheduled to be completed in 1998 at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion, the project finally concluded on December 31, 2007 at a cost of over $8.08 billion. The Boston Globe estimated that the project will ultimately cost $22 billion (adjusted for inflation and including interest), and that it will not be paid off until 2038.

This, the largest highway project ever built in the United States, may be the poster child for megaproject problems; 9 years late and $5.2billion over budget.

Successful Megaproject


The important civic purpose of this, the mother of all highway projects, was to eliminate the traffic congestion that was beginning to choke Boston’s growth as a financial, educational, and technological center in the early nineties. In the 1970s, the original elevated highway known as the Central Artery comfortably carried about 75,000 vehicles a day. By the early 1990s, that number had reached 200,000, making it one of the most congested highways in the United States — and projections into the 21st century were for many more cars.

The new roadway system, the Central Artery and Tunnel project, is solving that problem, with capacity to spare. It handles about 536,000 vehicles each weekday. Bottlenecks are minimized through the use of the add-a-lane design, where onramps become a permanent additional lane, requiring less merging.

The beleaguered Big Dig was not only a highway project but also an exercise in urban beautification. On that score, the project has unquestionably delivered. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway snakes along parks, open space and amenities, public art, food trucks, farmers’ markets, a fountain, carousel, and Harbor Islands visitor center.

The dismantling of the elevated Central Artery was nothing short of transformational, opening up views at Faneuil Hall Marketplace across to the harbor, knitting the urban fabric back together at Hanover Street in the North End, and ushering in new cityscapes at Bulfinch Triangle — where the elevated Green Line at North Station was also depressed. Entire generations have no memory and no idea that the hulking elevated viaducts were ever even there.

Failed Megaproject Redefined


Boston’s Big Dig is an example of a momentous project that started with highly publicized costs and schedule projections that seem to grow from the first day of work. The press has a field-day reporting it and the public, skeptical of the construction industry to begin with, started down a long road of disappointment. The unfortunate result is, even when the project delivered the public improvements as promised, it takes a while to be appreciated.

  • It seems as if visionary urban developers imagine grand mega civic projects with limited information about potential and future costs, construction complexity, inherent risk, or elapsed time involved in bringing these great civic leaps forward to fruition.
  • The public is always suspicious of the huge amounts of money that accompanies such projects so the difficult to manage, low-bid system is used to contract the project in an attempt to assuage public skepticism.
  • Interested parties sometimes price the work too low initially in an attempt to get in on the anticipated financial windfall that is about to occur. When results are in, it makes you wonder if anyone had even a vague idea of what this megaproject would ultimately cost or how long it might take to complete.
  • When the project goes over the initial, and possibly optimistic budget; and far beyond the best-guess completion date, everyone is (or acts) surprised and begins to blame anyone or anything.
  • Affected parties, afraid of public wrath, turn their lawyers loose on just about everyone involved causing dispute costs to skyrocket.
  • Amidst intense and costly litigation, the project stumbles on and, when finally completed, often surprisingly meets the civic needs for which it was intended.

A Failed or Successful Megaproject?


It depends on how you look at it.