The Road from Distressway to Expressway

This month we are looking at communications for Big Projects. And we’re kicking off the series with one of the biggest Big Projects in our nation’s recent history: Boston’s Big Dig!

Technically known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, it was conceived to replace the severely overburdened and unsightly raised Central Artery highway in Boston with a 3.5 mile tunnel and other significant ancillary improvements to relieve congestion and improve the city’s appearance. Prior to the improvements, one of the nicknames for the Central Artery highway was the “Distressway,” given its inability to handle traffic demands.

Construction of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge
(Credit: Bechtel Parsons Brinckerhoff)

Big transportation projects bring challenges, but few compare to the Big Dig. Completed in 2006, it ended up finishing at $24.3 billion – including debt service with payments planned through 2038. Did you know you could send the entire population of Flint, Michigan to the nation’s most expensive four-year college for less!

And, as with the nature of Big Projects, it didn’t happen overnight. Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey noted that he was in grammar school when the project was first conceived back in the 1970’s. And even though it’s long completed, its financial impact is far from over. According to a July report, the Big Dig is still putting a strain on the state’s ability to address other transportation priorities because the state still owes in interest and principal on the project. The $550 million annual obligation won’t be paid off until 2038.

We did not build this, but it is ours to manage,” Davey said.

Think of it this way: If one adds the length of time for planning, construction and financing, the Big Dig will take more than 60 years to complete. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes nearly a lifetime to complete some of these mega projects!

Yes, clearly building the Big Dig was a challenge. And along with that technical challenge was the challenge of keeping the many stakeholders informed and engaged as the project progressed. Public outreach and communications are critical even in the smallest of infrastructure projects. And in the largest of projects, maintaining public support and positive stakeholder engagement is exponentially more complex because of the length of construction, the ever-increasing cost over-runs, the constant media scrutiny, and the sheer number of people to keep in communication.

Our guest interviewee, Virginia “Ginny” Greiman,  had a key role in the project, acting as the Risk Manager and Deputy Chief Counsel. She’s now an Assistant Professor at Boston University, focusing on Megaprojects and Planning.

The first part of her interview is below. The second portion will follow later this week.

– – –

We heard a lot about the Big Dig when it was in construction. Do people in Boston still talk about it? What’s the general consensus now that it’s in place?
Now that the Big Dig is completed and the benefits are being realized through the elimination of traffic congestion, extensive environmental improvements, and a more physically beautiful city it has become part of the everyday fabric of the City and people seem to have forgotten what those years were like. Being able to travel across the City in 5 minutes instead of 45 minutes is a dramatic improvement including being able to reach the Airport in a manner of minutes, whereas before it could take hours with commuter traffic.

For those new to the City, they cannot imagine what it must have been like to have the City divided in two by an ugly green highway in the sky. However, local citizens are constantly reminded through press and media reports of the continuing challenges of maintaining the new tunnels and ensuring the infrastructure’s safety and dependability through constant vigilance, frequent inspections and continual maintenance.

Before and After the Big Dig

When it comes to mega projects, few match the Big Dig. From a communication point of view, are there lessons learned that could be applied to other projects?
Yes, all megaprojects require an extensive planning phase that includes involvement of the local community and all stakeholders, but particularly the local residential and business communities. The major planning for the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, popularly known as the Big Dig essentially began in the 1970s and continued until the early 1990s when the first shovel went into the ground. Thus, a 20-year period was required for the planning of the Big Dig.

The more you involve stakeholders in the planning process, the fewer surprises you will have.

Overall the extensive upfront planning and the use of local town meetings and community action groups mitigated substantially the amount of complaints and public outrage that might have occurred without this daily involvement. The Big Dig’s extensive environmental report assigned responsibilities to different governmental, residential and business groups that mitigated much of the anticipated disruption of the City.

Big projects have many stakeholders. Who were the stakeholders for this project?
The Big Dig had tens of thousands of stakeholders, both internal and external to the Project including:

  • The Project Sponsors including the Federal Highway Administration, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department
  • The Project’s management consultant, Bechtel Parsons Brinckerhoff and hundreds of professional sub-consultants
  • More than 5000 workers
  • 110 major contractors and thousands of sub-contractors for the 132 major work packages

Construction Workers at the Opening Ceremony for the Northbound Entrance

  • More than 1500 project employees during its peak years of construction
  • Boston’s commuting public and residential population totaled more than 1.5 million on any given day
  • Advocacy groups included the Conservation Law Foundation, the Massachusetts Wildlife Federation, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Artery Business Committee.  A Better City Transportation Management Association (ABC TMA) was established in 1996, by the Artery Business Committee in partnership with the Central Artery/Tunnel (CA/T) project and the City of Boston in order to address employer concerns about getting employees, clients, and visitors into Boston during the peak construction of the Big Dig.
  • More than 100 key federal, state and local government agencies directly connected with the Big Dig including the Project’s sponsors, Boston’s major airport (Massport Authority), Boston’s transit system (the MBTA), the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretariat (HUD) and Boston’s  Police and Fire Departments.
  • Public Auditors including the Central Artery/Tunnel Project Oversight and Coordination Committee which included the Office of the Inspector General, the Massachusetts State Auditor, the Massachusetts House Oversight Committee and the Massachusetts Attorney General
  • The local and national press and media including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Washington Post, the New York Times and numerous local radio and television reporting on the Big Dig

Section of the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway

Which stakeholders were kept engaged and which stakeholders were kept informed? Did those strategies change over time?
All stakeholders were identified as the Project evolved.  The management of stakeholders was a key focus of the Project and developing collaborative relationships and partnerships was central to the Project’s mission.  The strategies for keeping stakeholders informed were constantly evolving as the both the stakeholders and the needs changed.  There were numerous collaborations with stakeholders both internal and external to the Big Dig.  Examples of these partnerships included:

  • Collaborating with government agencies to develop more streamlined and focused procedures,
  • Partnering with contractors and designers to resolve disputes and to avoid extensive litigation,
  • Establishing residential pilot programs to keep the local residents informed and involved,
  • Partnering with the local business community through the Artery Business Committee (ABC), the primary representative of the local business community to track air quality, noise, traffic congestion, access to buildings and homes, and to assess risk prevention and mitigation opportunities.

– – –

We will continue with the second part of Professor Greiman’s interview later this week, when she speaks about communications strategy regarding cost over-runs, which are common in Big Projects.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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