Permitting uncontrolled costs

The Big Dig often is compared to historic construction projects such as the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal, but with one proviso: the Central Artery/Tunnel is being built in the heart of a major metropolitan area in a time of heavy environmental regulation.

"[The Big Dig] is the most heavily permitted project ever," says project historian and former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority official Dan MacNichol. Project officials have obtained dozens of overall permits at the federal, state, and local level that include more than 1,000 specific "permit actions" or conditions that the project must fulfill, according to Ronald Killian, the Big Dig's manager of environmental permits and procedures. Killian estimates the project will have to satisfy more than 500 additional permit conditions.

To minimize disruption in neighboring communities, the Big Dig has financed a series of "mitigation" measures such as building sound barriers and temporary roads. Since the early 1980s, the project's state patrons have used mitigation to neutralize potential opponents, tying everything from new rail transit proposals to job training programs into the project. This strategy contributed to the Big Dig's spiraling costs, according to project experts.

"Because costs were not, until very recently, viewed as a major constraint on project feasibility, the predominant tendency was to accommodate [potential opponents]," wrote Harvard researchers David Luberoff and Alan Altshuler in a 1996 study of the Big Dig. Mitigation costs have consumed roughly one-third of the Big Dig's mammoth budget since the project began.

In the early 1990s, permitting and mitigation challenges combined to nearly derail the Big Dig as result of a controversy over a proposed bridge spanning the Charles River. The proposal, known as "Scheme Z," would have stacked four interchanges into a 10-story tower on the north side of the river. But local resistance was so strong that state and federal regulators made approval of the entire Big Dig contingent on replacing Scheme Z with a different approach. After a three-year redesign process, construction on a new river crossing finally began in 1997. The permitting delay added $1.4 billion to the cost of the project, according to MacNichol.

Referring to the raft of permits and mitigation commitments the Big Dig has entailed, former MTA Chairman Andrew Natsios says, "The Hoover Dam would never have been built under this system." The Hoover Dam project, which went on seven days a week in the desert heat, came in ahead of schedule and under budget, a feat that has eluded most contemporary megaprojects financed by Uncle Sam.

Luberoff notes that three recent construction projects have finished late and over budget: the Denver airport and two Los Angeles projects: a subway and the Century Freeway. Although smaller in scale, the long-awaited overhaul of the Golden Gate Bridge-enabling the bridge to withstand an earthquake of 8.3 on the Richter scale-has almost doubled in cost since 1995. "The political system is structured in such a way that there isn't a lot of reward for measuring [project] costs upfront," says Luberoff. "Much of the system is geared to get projects going, and once they are under way, it's hard to stop them."

MTA officials say the sheer complexity of the Big Dig made it very difficult to put together accurate budget and schedule forecasts. Problems such as the site's poor soil and the noise and vibration of urban construction further complicate the process.

In 1987, Congress approved the use of federal interstate construction funds for the Big Dig without requiring a comprehensive funding plan. The first financing plan didn't come until three years later. Today, given the complex oversight and budget projections now required by Congress and the Federal Highway Administration, it is an open question whether the Big Dig would be funded at all.

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