Today, we continue with part two of our interview with Virginia “Ginny” Greiman, former Deputy General Counsel and Risk Manager of Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project, known to all as the Big Dig.
The Big Dig was a megaproject undertaken in Boston to rid the city of an outdated elevated highway, the Central Artery, and replace it with a tunnel and a host of other innovative infrastructure improvements.
In addition to solving gridlock through Boston, the Big Dig is also known for costing more than planned. Cost over-runs are not unusual for mega projects. Indeed, they are the norm, according to one study done by the department of Development and Planning at Aalborg University in Aalborg, Denmark. That study showed that 90 percent of transportation projects saw cost over-runs.
Here, Greiman, an Assistant Professor focusing on Megaprojects and Planning at Boston University, talks about the cost over-runs and the communications strategies used to address them.
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The Big Dig is known for cost increases. The project’s bill kept going up. What communication strategy was used to explain what was happening to the budget and why additional funds were needed?
Monthly informational sessions were held starting during peak construction in 1999 and continuing through completion of the Project in 2006. At these monthly meetings extensive reports were released on the project’s status including the project’s budget, cost, schedule, safety and risk management. These sessions allowed the public to ask key questions of the Project’s core managers as well as make suggestions for improvement, many of which were implemented. At these meetings the full budget was presented along with the Project’s sources of funding. Though these meetings were filled to capacity during the first six months, eventually attendance decreased as the public developed some comfort that the project costs were starting to stabilize and the Project end date became more realistic.
Did those strategies work?
When costs were escalating during the early 1990s there were many concerns that funding would not be available and the Project would run out of money. The strategies that were implemented and the public disclosure worked well but were implemented too late in the Project to avoid continuous criticism by the press and media who continually emphasized the increasing costs.
A lesson learned for all megaprojects is to implement public hearings from the inception of the Project and then continue them throughout the life of the Project so the media and the public feels involved in the Project and that their concerns are being heard and addressed.
There’s been a suggestion that mega projects could be broken up into smaller, sequential projects. That approach would also allow the communications to get more focused. Would that strategy have worked for the Big Dig?
The Big Dig was actually broken down into 132 major work packages and then further broken down into smaller construction packages. However, at all times the Big Dig maintained one budget, one schedule and one finance plan throughout the project life.
During the early planning stages of the Big Dig not all components of the project were included. Thus, as the Project evolved the costs increased from the original estimate of $2.5 billion to its final cost of $14.8 billion. Ultimately, the Big Dig became one project rather than smaller separate projects based on federal funding requirements.
Conversely, isn’t there a risk with breaking up mega projects into bite sized pieces. Will the plans be comprehensive or complete?
Though the project management literature supports the breaking down of large projects into smaller projects so they can be better managed, in reality megaprojects often require an understanding of all components at the outset so that total funding can be secured from the sponsors without having to go back and request additional funds for each phase of the project. There is also the risk that finding additional sponsors may be more difficult at a later date as components are added to the project.
As an example, the Big Dig’s funding was capped by the federal government in 2000 at $8.5 billion as the cost of the Project continued to grow.
How should the risks and benefits be communicated and when should they be communicated?
Risks and benefits of projects should be mega communicated in all forms to the public at large as well as stakeholder groups and project teams throughout the project life. They should be communicated through financial reports, press releases, public meetings, website postings, interviews and other devices.
The Big Dig used several forms of communication including monthly meetings on all details of the project including the status of the project, schedule, cost and budget, risk management and health and safety. These meetings were open to everybody both internal and external to the project including the local community and the local press and media. Other means of communication included a detailed website, frequent interviews with the media, daily press releases, the establishment of stakeholder groups that partnered with the Big Dig including law enforcement, environmental organizations, advocacy groups, internal and external auditors, researchers, Universities, residential and business partnerships. It is important to give the stakeholders a role in the Project so they can assist in providing feedback and submit recommendations for mitigation of risk and improvement of Project processes.
Did the Big Dig have a primary message to market it to decision makers when it was in the planning phase? And was that message kept throughout construction, regardless of the challenges and over-runs?
The primary message was reduction of traffic congestion and the improvement of the environment and air quality in the City. The original above ground highway (the Central Artery) was built in the 1950s for a maximum capacity of 75,000 vehicles and by the late 1980s it was carrying 190,000 vehicles – more than double its capacity. Throughout construction the public was constantly reminded of the benefits of the Big Dig and the realization that Boston’s commuting time would be reduced dramatically by completing the project along with enhancement of its air quality and better quality of life for its fish and wildlife.
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Thank you so much for being interviewed. We greatly appreciate your time and insight and we can’t wait for publication of your book later this year called, Megaproject Management: Lessons from the Big Dig.
We would like an autographed copy!
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.