Way back when, the initial cost of Boston’s Big Dig, the largest public works project in the nation’s history, was put at a respectable $3.2 billion.
That was back in 1986. A year later, the price tag had risen to $4.2 billion, and by 1990 it was up to $4.75 billion. In 1991,work finally began, and the cost of the Big Dig has been rising ever since. Today, years behind schedule, the “final” cost of the Big Dig is estimated to be $14.637 billion. The Big Dig is expected to be completed in 2005.
Facing more than a decade of overruns, controversy and general political mayhem (both in Boston and Washington), the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board unanimously voted to hire the prestigious National Academy of Engineering to evaluate the Big Dig’s operations and its management with an eye to improving overall performance.
The National Academy is just one of three Washington-based organizations established by Congress to conduct research in fields including science, engineering and medicine. It is already under way in selecting approximately a dozen construction management specialists who will spend at least four months looking into the Big Dig’s managers, and their methods of operation.
According to board members, when finished, the panel will issue a report that board members say will serve as a blueprint for potentially vast changes in the way the Big Dig is run. It might even regenerate efforts to get back some of the money that has been lost in overruns over the years.
Surprisingly, the panel’s membership includes both current and former members of Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff, the two companies that currently manage the Big Dig. But Academy President William A. Wulf said that the organization will “bend over backward” to make certain its panel and its reports will be “beyond reproach.” The Academy’s leadership, including former chairman Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., is totally divorced from every review it commissions.
Wulf said, “We have a reputation for not pulling punches. We get the truth and the whole truth. The federal government has put a lot of money into this, so we will hit the road running.”
According to Wulf, the panelists are thoroughly checked for any potential conflicts of interest. The names of those selected are placed on the Academy’s Web site for 40 days to solicit any public comment. Following that, the panelists grill each other in an attempt to ensure that the report they generate will be unassailable.
A spokesperson from Bechtel Corporation said that, “We welcome an independent third-party peer review of all aspects of the Central Artery/Tunnel project and we will continue to work with the board to complete the project as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.”
One Massachusetts legislator, State Representative Joseph Sullivan, a co-chairman of the Transportation Committee and a frequent critic of the Big Dig’s management, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the peer review would yield positive results. If the turnpike is unable to edit the report and Bechtel alumni have nothing to do with it, Sullivan hailed it as a, “step forward … For credibility, this must be done in an unvarnished way. We in the Legislature eagerly await the results.”
In the fall of 2001, the turnpike board, in a unanimous vote, agreed to solicit bids for a peer review on the Big Dig’s management. Chairman Matthew Amorello proposed the hiring of the National Academy of Engineering.
Jordan Levy, a turnpike board member who has repeatedly called for greater controls on the Big Dig, said he was fully behind the hiring of the Academy after he was assured that there were no conflicts-of-interest possible in the review process. He also termed the Academy’s cost, $300,000, “a bargain.”
Levy said the Academy’s report, which will not be edited by the turnpike, could be a big help in possibly recouping some of the billions-of-dollars in overruns, some of which he has blamed directly in the past on the Bechtel/Parsons joint venture.
Levy said, “We’ve got to ensure the quality of the project. Peer review will tell us how well the job’s been done to date.”
Once the review is compete, Levy stressed that he will push for the hiring of a permanent oversight body to implement the changes specified, and to make certain that the remainder of Big Dig operations are conducted in a satisfactory manner.
In a related move the authority board voted to offer its long-time employees an early retirement package that could save the agency up to $2.4 million each year. Officials noted that 348 of the turnpike’s 1,260 employees qualify for the early retirement program. They expect approximately 100 may take advantage of it. The board capped the number of positions it could later fill at 20 percent. That means that 80 of the expected people to take early retirement will not be replaced.
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