The Big Dig Project: Risk Management


Termini defines (2010) “project management as the discipline of planning, organizing, securing and managing resources to bring about successful completion of specific project goals and objectives”. The objectives of project management could vary with different projects but all serve the purpose of ensuring that the project runs smoothly and is completed on time. Project management is also an important tool when identifying risks and managing them. Identifying the key processes in a project is the first and most fundamental step for any team planning to execute their strategy.The development phase in the Big Dig project included initiation, planning and design, executing, monitoring and controlling, and finally the closure of the project. Project management is only productive if the results will be aligned with its strategic objectives.

Project background

“The Big Dig was a mega-project in Boston that rerouted the Central Artery (Interstate 93), the chief highway through the heart of the city, into a 3.5 mile tunnel” (Greiman, 2010). The project is still considered among the most expensive in the United States costing an approximated $22 billion if it was to be fully paid off in 2038. The project’s initial costs were approximated to be 2.56 billion. It was marred by leaks, exaggerated and escalating costs, poor quality of materials, fraud, criminal arrests, and four losses of life. “The project concluded on December 31, 2007, when the partnership between program manager Bechtel and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority ended” (Gelinas, 2007).

The project was developed to ease congestion on Boston’s streets. It was the most complex and technically advanced road projects in the history of the country. It was also the biggest highway project the country had seen. “Among the engineering firsts included the deepest underwater connection and the largest slurry-wall application in North America, unprecedented ground freezing, extensive deep-soil mixing programs for stability, and the largest tunnel-ventilation system in the world” (Greiman, 2010).

Planning and execution

The Big Dig was conceived in the 1970s to curb major traffic problems in Boston. The expressway was aimed at separating the waterfront from the downtown. The Big Dig idea was initiated by the Boston Transportation Planning Review. The planners pushed for a third harbor tunnel as a result of their concerns on the inability to access the Logan Airport (Gelinas, 2007). The planning stage officially began in the early 1980s. In 1983, an environmental impact survey was initiated. In 1987, the US congress passed a bill to allow the project’s funding. It was thereafter vetoed by the president as a result of its high cost of implementation. However, congress overrode that veto and the project officially began in 1991.

Initial planning for the project included performing an environmental impact survey, identifying archeological sites and how they would affect designs, doing soil-mix tests and testing the strength of soil, among others. Actual planning included sourcing for labor, sourcing for raw materials, vetting suppliers and contractors, making financial budgets and establishing success measures. The project required several mitigation projects such as pedestrian, parks and bicycles completed before it would be fully implemented.

Planning further includes getting the mandate to begin, briefing everyone who was involved, establishing cases and contracts and defining the goals of the project. The project’s planning involved determining the level of detail and developing the scope statement. At this stage, the team had already identified deliverables and broken down the work structure. It is also at this stage that a plan was put in place to complete the deliverable and network all the projects activities. The costs at this time were estimated at $2.8 billion, and the supervision contract was awarded to two companies; Parsons Brinkckerhoff and Bechtel Corporation. There was a team set to to develop the schedule and the budget.

Execution was done through the involvement of several contractors. Major contractors in the project included Modern Continental, Perini Corporation and Skanska’s slattery division in the US. Notable activities during the project included opening the Westbound lanes, moving the elevated Interstate 93 underground. Major engineering tasks include building tunnels without much interruption on the existing elevated highways.

Risk management

Asimakopoulou (2010) defines risk management as the “identification, assessment, and prioritization of risks followed by coordinated and economical application of resources to minimize, monitor, and control them”. Risks arise from different uncertainties such as natural calamities, legal liabilities, deliberate attacks from an enemy and economic uncertainties, among many other causes all evident in the Big Dig project. For most part, risk management methods consist of several elements, performed in a specifically defined order. They include assessment or identification of threats, assessment of the project’s vulnerability, consequences and identifying ways to eliminate or reduce the threats (Global Crisis Management Organization, 2009).

Finally, a strategy is set up to prioritize risks minimization. Principles of risk management include creation of value, addressing uncertainties, creating a systematic and structured strategy and creation of a dynamic and responsive management of change (Coppola, 2007). Risks identified in the project include the following:

Technical risks

Technical risks are those risks related to the professionalism of the project and affect it directly (Ghaemi, 2007). In the Big Dig project, these risks included incomplete or wrong designs, uncertainties over availability or delivery of materials, inadequate or inaccurate site assessments, and wrong specifications and estimations. Some of the materials used in the project were to be imported, exposing the team to the risk of late deliveries and other complications in case of wrong specifications. The Big Dig, the biggest highway project in the United States, was bound to have its completion delayed if these challenges were not addressed. Materials sent with wrong specifications took too long to be send back to their country of origin for corrections. The end result was not only a delayed date of completion, but an incomplete and abandoned project.

Logistical risks

Logistical risks are mainly caused by lack of proper transportation infrastructure in a region (El-Sayegh, 2008). They include availability of resources and a timely delivery of materials. The labor market and availability of professionals can also pose as a major logistical threat. The Big Dig project was getting more complex as developers tried to put up the best designs. It was also suffering more challenges as unprecedented concerns arose. As a result, high level of expertise was required and lack of it or preparation for it paralyzed the project. Logistical risks also arise when construction equipments, labor, fuel and other spare parts are not delivered on time (Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2010), as was with the Big Dig. Suppliers were not able to keep up with changing schedules and time-frames of the project.

Financial risks

Financial risks affect the cost factor of a project. They include inflation, fluctuating tax rates, delayed payments, repatriation of funds and foreign exchange rates (Klemetti, 2006). The Big Dig initial cost was approximated at US $2.8 billion in 1985. This cost was adjusted to US $ 6.0 by 2006 to cater for inflation, and later rose to US $14.6 billion. The cost was expected to rise to US $22 billion by 2038. Some of the raw materials were imported, meaning that foreign exchange rates played a major role on the total cost of the project. A considerable percentage of the professionals involved in construction were foreigners and paying them in their own currencies further affected the cost. The country’s economic growth in the early to mid 1990s was not very healthy and inflation rates increased the financial risks involved in the project.

Construction risks

Construction risks include safety and natural uncertainties. Employees’ safety and well being, stability of the finished project ,and protection against natural risks such as strong winds, are the major concerns in construction risks (REF). The Big Dig was plagued by health and safety challenges. It cost the lives of a motorist and three construction workers. Project developers need to ensure safety measures even before projects commence. As the project progressed, it was evident that safety measures were not adequately addressed. Other construction risks identified in the project include poor industrial relations, lack of preparation for weather implications and uncertain productivity of materials.

Political risks

Political risks make it hard for projects to access expatriates and import the required materials. When a country is politically unstable, it is not easy to do any consistent work and the safety of the site and materials may be jeopardized. “Political risks may also bring about insistence on use of local professionals and materials, some of which may not fit the standard required by the project” (Coppola, 2007). The USA enjoyed a stable political environment and very friendly foreign trade policies at the time, a factor that allowed developers to access the best materials and experts from all parts of the world. However, disagreements in congress on funding were blamed for some of the delays.

Design risks

“The biggest problem in the Big Dig was the means and methods used to address issues raised in the project’s designs and drawings, and the failure to properly account for subsurface conditions during the construction process” (Gelinas, 2007). As the project progressed, it was evident that all the risks in the project were under-estimated. There were many anticipated challenges and conditions as a result of doing construction in a busy city, and the overwhelming size of the project.

Among the unplanned surprises included ground-water conditions, large amounts of hazardous materials, unavailable materials and utilities, archeological discoveries, unprecedented environmental challenges, among many others. There were major safety and healthy concerns as the project progressed, mainly because of large volumes of hazardous materials and weak soil, which were not well planned for. As a result, schedules and milestones kept on changing and the project lacked consistency. Every change of plan and every artifact discovered required approvals from different stakeholders.

Measures that should have been taken

Public safety

The US international codes Council (ICC) outlines what is expected by developers in order to ensure safety (Site and Safe, 1999). Safety codes addressed include the International Building Code. In the process of implementing the Big Dig project, several safety problems have been identified. The team was highly blamed for lacking comprehensive preparation measures to mitigate any safety risks. The team is also blamed for ignoring those safety risks established in the early stages of the project. For example, “as far back 2001, Turnpike Authority officials and private contractors knew of thousands of leaks in the ceiling and wall fissures, extensive water damage to steel supports and fireproofing systems, and overloaded drainage systems” (The Boston Channel, 2004).

The project manager, together with his team, should have addressed safety by planning for it from the tendering process. Contractors’ tenders should have been assessed for their health,safety and welfare strategies, plans and stages. Designers and advisers should have set up success measures and control systems that identify areas of concern and allow for corrective measures before the project develops further.

Quality of materials

According to The New York Times (2006), “Massachusetts State Police searched for the offices of aggregate industries, the largest concrete supplier for the underground portions of the project, and found evidence of aggregate that did not meet the contract specifications”. Since the project stalled, there have been over 200 complaints filed against the project managers as a result of poor quality of material and violation of quality standards.

Quality of materials can be achieved through working with proper materials specifications. Available techniques for managing quality include “total quality control, quality control by statistical methods, statistical quality control with sampling by attributes, and many others” (Clealand, 2006). Among the reasons why quality was low included corrupt developers who took the project as an opportunity to swindle money from the government. Ensuring proper vetting procedures are ensured is key in minimizing the chances of having developers who lack a passion for quality. It also should have been important that the construction companies sought authorization for any changes in the project from the concerned stakeholders.

Managing risks

To manage risks, there are enough risk management solutions that the project could have utilized. The first step would have been to ensure that laws dealing with construction safety measures are fully adhered to. The project should also have adopted standardization of construction processes, to ensure minimized risks and consistency. It is important that the government puts developers into task in future, to ensure that their teams are well trained on risk management and safety (Ghaemi, 2007). Such a measure would have prevented the deaths of three construction workers. Training should involve intensive consultations from experts and from countries that have managed to eliminate major construction risks in major developments. Such training is not only important for risk management but according to Craythorne (2006), “the knowledge obtained from a risk management strategy can assist with preparing the tender, selecting the resources and methods of construction, interpreting the contract and pricing works”.

Important lessons

The importance of project integration

For any project to succeed, project integration is critical. It is paramount that all the stakeholders be involved and consulted in major decisions. “Project integration should address the project’s charter, the importance of its stakeholders, significant milestones, and the project’s lifecycle” (Winser, 2008). The project plan should be comprehensive enough to allow easy takeover if there was any change in the project’s management. Project management methodologies should be applicable and realistic. The Big Dig was blamed of developing an extremely technologically advanced project when there was not enough capacity for the team to do so.

A project’s budget and costs must also be realistic enough to minimize financial hitches. Costs approximation should be done in full consideration of all the financial risks that may arise. These include inflation rates, exchange rates for imported materials, price changes for the supplies, labor availability, among others. The Big Dig’s project was faced with extreme escalating costs, a factor that made it impossible for the fund sources to keep up with.

The need for mutual goals and incentives

“Goals and incentives must be mutual and built into contracts throughout the project life cycle to ensure quality, safety, financial soundness, and a commitment to meeting budget and schedules” (Clealand, 2006.). A project’s charter must fully identify quantifiable goals and objectives. Unrealistic goals makes it not only impossible for the stakeholders to anticipate challenges, it also makes it hard for employees to meet targets that are not very well defined. “The project’s inputs should be discussed with deliverable and success criteria in mind” (Turley, 2010).

Improvement and oversight

To ensure quality throughout the project, there is a need to implement continuous improvement strategies. They allow a project manager to identify those areas which are failing and work towards improving them. In the case of the Big Dig, the project suffered too much rigidity and lacked room for adjustments to minimize the costs. The plan was too complex to implement changes easily, and there were more additions than deductions. As a result, the costs kept escalating and there were no appropriate measures to trim it. A project should ensure that for every stage, there are alternatives should there be any unprecedented difficulties.

The need for constant innovations

Good quality management techniques ensure constant product improvement and counter-measures for possible technicalities in the process. “Delivery processes should be constantly evaluated and improved in the light of their efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility” (Cleland, 2006). The Big Dig failed because there were no realistic alternatives for those processes and stages that failed. Control measures are designed to automatically give a guideline on the next best and realistic step for those which may have failed or proved too difficult to implement.


As Gelinas (2007) argues, “mega projects will always struggle with unforeseen events, massive regulatory requirements, technical complexities, community concerns, and a challenging political environment”. In recent years, a lot of attention has been focused on project risk management. Research has revealed that the success of any project is very dependent on the management’s support for risk management processes. “Construction projects are characterized as very complex projects, where uncertainties come from various sources” (Coppola, 2007). Since they gather too many stakeholders, it becomes more difficult to study and integrate the extensive network included in implementing them.

“Despite the lack of comprehensive health and safety statistics for many regions, there is a clear consensus that safety on construction sites is improving” (Global Crisis Management Organization, 2009). The Build Safe Initiative, an organization that collects and analyzes data on construction safety, says that in many countries, safety has tremendously improved since 2008. Different standards and regulations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards and the actuarial societies standards are taken very seriously. The United State’s occupational safety and health law cover all safety, health and protection concerns. “The USA advocates for the use of the ‘CM at-risk’ approach to project management, which seeks to ensure that the contractor delivers the project within the Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP)” (Site and Safe, 1999). The concerned authorities also regularly organize conferences targeting various professionals in the construction industry and developers are obligated to train their employees and teams on safety and other types of risk management.

From the Big Dig project, it is important to realize that during project management, key processes should not be too many. “On average, typical projects will have ten to fifteen key processes” (Termini, 2009). Factors that determine the success of a project may vary. Some are external but most of them are internal, meaning the project team has control over how they turn out. The first important step towards managing a key project is identifying its baseline in regards to the current environment in the industry. The team must know how well it plans to execute its key processes before even deciding how they want to go about it. The other important step is identifying the most fundamental success factors for the project. These are factors that must be available if the process has to work out and give results. They include things such as technology requirements and availability, tools for measuring performance and how the process will be aligned.

Reference List

Asimakopoulou, E, 2010. Advanced ICTs for Disaster Management and Threat Detection: Collaborative Frameworks. Hershey, PA: Information Science References.

Clealand, D., 2006. Project Management: Strategic Design and Implementation. New York: Routledge Publishers.

Coppola, D., 2007. Introduction to risk management. Amsterdam: Butterworth Heinemann.

Craythorne, D., 2006. Municipal administration: The handbook. Cape Town: Juta.

El-Sayegh, S. M., 2008. Risk assessment and allocation in the UAE construction industry. International Journal of Project Management, 26 (4), pp. 431-438.

Gelinas, N., 2007. Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig.

Ghaemi, H., 2007. Building towers: Safety management. Amsterdam: Butterworth Heinemann.

Global Crisis Management Organization, 2009. Crisis management. Web.

Greiman, V., 2010. The Big Dig: Learning from a Mega Project. Web.

Klemetti, A., 2006. Risk management in construction project networks.

Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2010. Services and solutions risk management. Web.

Site and Safe, 1999. Construction safety management guide. Web.

Termini, M., 2009. Strategic project management: Tools and techniques For Practicing Project Management. New Jersey: Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

The Boston Channel, 2004. Report: Even more Big Dig leaks found. Web.

The New York Times, 2006. State weighs suing Big Dig contractors. International Herald Tribune. Web.

Turley, D., 2010. Laying down safety law. New York: Routledge.

Winser, J., 2008. Principles of Project Management: A Balanced Approach. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.


Pictures of the mega Big Dig project

A part of the Big Dig project: The Bunker Hill Bridge
A part of the Big Dig project: The Bunker Hill Bridge
Interstate 93 tunnel
Interstate 93 tunnel
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