Project Management Institute

Boston's lessons learned

with a new wave of infrastructure projects underway, the U.S. city is determined to avoid the problems that cursed the "Big Dig"

The Big Dig has cast a long shadow over Boston, Massachusetts, USA. And with a new wave of major infrastructure projects now underway, project sponsors and practitioners in the city are determined to avoid the mistakes that turned the highway tunnel megaproject into a debacle: The US$14.8 billion project closed nine years late, in 2007, and overran its original budget of US$2.6 billion.

“After the Big Dig, Boston and the surrounding region experienced a drought of capital funding,” says Eduardo Gamez, PhD, deputy director of risk management, program and construction management practice, AECOM, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Many in Boston's project community spent the years immediately after the project closed involved in projects outside the region, learning best practices, he says. “Now agencies that never looked at risk before in a formalized way are trying to understand the ‘what-ifs’ before they start construction.”

Robust risk management may be one reason Boston's public transit agency revealed last August that a planned 4.3-mile (6.9-kilometer) extension of its Green Line subway could cost US$700 million to US$1 billion above the previously announced US$2 billion price tag. (The project's future is now uncertain.) Other recent projects have hit snags after construction started: The Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced in mid-2015 that completion of a US$255 million project to reconstruct the city's Longfellow Bridge would be delayed by two years because of complications associated with preserving the century-old structure. And in 2014, a US$160 million renovation of a terminal at the city's Logan Airport came in US$61 million over budget.


Boston's infrastructure project woes stem from the city's size, density, climate and age.


Boston's infrastructure project woes stem from the city's size, density, climate and age.

“It's the complexity of building in a small, congested city that makes projects here so challenging,” says Virginia Greiman, PMP, author of Megaproject Management: Lessons on Risk and Project Management from the Big Dig. She served as the Big Dig's deputy chief legal counsel and risk manager.

Geotechnical challenges also crop up; parts of Boston sit atop fill. “Boston is a city built on and along the shoreline. Consequently, it's always been difficult to build here,” Ms. Greiman says. “The movement of the tides means soil conditions are not very stable.”

Yet another challenge is an unpredictable construction season length due to erratic winter weather, Dr. Gamez says. And then there's Boston's age: Founded in 1630, it's one of the oldest cities in the United States. “Working downtown, especially, has its own challenges in terms of the historic grounds and making precautions for any undocumented artifacts you might uncover underground,” Dr. Gamez says.

Archaeological risks translate into complicated and expensive preservation techniques, along with extra stakeholders. “We have to work hand-in-hand with municipal government agencies, of which there are many,” says David Petersile, PMP, senior project manager in the Boston office of PMI Global Executive Council member Burns & McDonnell. Input from neighborhood associations, citizen groups, historical societies, universities and other organizations is also common.

“A lot of schedule delays and cost overruns are due to stakeholder involvement,” Mr. Petersile says. “Many projects today are being pushed forward without designs that are 100-percent complete. That can slow down projects because everyone wants to give their input as the design evolves.”

Plan for the Worst

For infrastructure project leaders, the best approaches to Boston's complex project environment are clear. They must do deep up-front planning, prepare stakeholders for lengthy projects and learn to be patient.

“These are long-term projects. We need to be more transparent about the fact that they may take longer, cause more inconvenience and perhaps cost more money than we'd like,” Ms. Greiman says. “And we need to make sure we have the right structure in place—including the right governance, expertise, budget, risk assessment and stakeholder engagement—before moving forward with procurement.”


“Boston residents have experienced the trials and tribulations of projects, but now they're seeing positive results.”

—David Petersile, PMP, Burns & McDonnell, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Communicating and realizing benefits is also crucial, says Mr. Petersile. From a benefits standpoint, he notes that Boston's infrastructure project track record is better than its reputation. For example, by rerouting an expressway into a new tunnel beneath downtown, the Big Dig improved access to the South Boston waterfront and spurred rapid development. It has been one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the state. Nearly 8,000 jobs were created between 2000 and 2013 and another 22,930 are projected by 2035, according to the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan, a report released by a coalition of government agencies in 2015.

“Boston residents have come to accept that with growth comes some pain and difficulty. They've experienced the trials and tribulations of projects, but now they're seeing the positive results,” he says. “The city since I've lived here has changed dramatically, and it's only for the better. With all the development that's taking place, it's poised for continued growth.” —Matt Alderton

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