Honeywell Brain to Think for Boston’s ’Big Dig’

Thu April 03, 2003 - National Edition

BOSTON (Reuters) - This city’s "Big Dig" highway project -- expected to cost nearly $15 billion -- has busted budgets and blown through deadlines with impunity.

But for that amount of dough, the finished product promises to be more than just another mindless stretch of underground asphalt. The Big Dig, the nickname for Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, will have a big, pulsating brain.

Wired with more than 2.6 million feet of fiber-optic cable, the Big Dig’s brain will control more than 400 video cameras beneath the city and alert motorists to hazards by breaking

into their radio broadcasts. Imagine a Boston Red Sox broadcast being interrupted with a warning for motorists to avoid a stalled car in the left lane.

The brain will monitor for pollution inside the highway’s tunnel network, advise human controllers on how to respond to emergencies and check 40,000 data points every three seconds.

Officials at Honeywell International Ltd. (NYSE:HON - news), which created the high-tech

central nervous system for the brain, describe the layout as one of the most sophisticated

traffic management networks in the world. Bostonians, famous for dropping their R’s when they speak, might just say, "It’s wicked smaaht." had better be.

Boston drivers have endured traffic snarls for more than a decade as Big Dig workers tunneled under the city to build a new central thoroughfare. In the mid-1980s, the public works project was expected to cost some $2 billion. Now, it stands as the most expensive public works project in U.S. history.

The Big Dig still isn’t finished -- it may be done in 2005 -- but on Sunday the northbound lanes of Interstate 93 will open for traffic. Highway officials estimate up to 250,000 vehicles a day will use the northbound lanes.

Drivers coming from the west and south of the city will be able to enter the underground tunnel, travel under downtown Boston, and then up and onto the new Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge that spans the Charles River.

"Building a nuclear power plant is a little easier because it’s contained on a fixed site," said

George Gram, a former nuclear power plant construction expert. Gram is in charge of the $200 million traffic management system that Honeywell designed and installed for the Big Dig.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that traffic congestion costs the country about $100 billion a year in lost productivity. So-called intelligent transportation systems, such as the one designed by Honeywell, have become popular with city planners because they allow existing highways to handle more traffic without pouring more concrete.

U.S. highway authorities estimate that equipping one mile of freeway with electronic traffic

surveillance costs about $1 million while construction of one mile of urban freeway costs about$40 million.

Nevertheless, when pressed for a prediction on whether the Big Dig would alleviate Boston’s big-time traffic jams once and for all, Honeywell’s Gram steered clear of giving a forecast.

"I’m not a traffic engineer," Gram said. "And I’m not going to answer that question."