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Overseeing Oversight

Vivek Rao

Recent reports detailing serious structural flaws in Big Dig construction may very well have been the last straw. The most expensive and ambitious infrastructure project in the history of the United States, the Big Dig has been fraught with problems since its conception. Skyrocketing costs, frequent postponements of the projected completion dates, allegations of fraud, and even an occasional investigative television report documenting boozing workers have been among the numerous black eyes associated with the Dig. Yet through it all, Bostonians could at least take heart in the simple fact that once construction was completed, the city would be left with a jewel that would be the envy of the world and would catalyze a sort of Golden Age for the Hub. Until now.

The series of underground tunnels that compose the heart of the Big Dig appear to be riddled with minor leaks. Both contractors and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority have defended such leaks as normal, promising a typical approach of identifying and fixing such defects, but it is clear that something else is afoot. Big Dig tunnels have experienced major flooding more than once, including a major leak this past September.

So what happened? Consider what John MacDonald, chairman of the Big Dig’s primary contractor Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, told lawmakers this past week. “Our investigation to date indicates that we missed two opportunities to correct the specific wall problem ahead of time,” MacDonald said. “We seriously regret not doing enough to prevent this incident. There is no satisfactory explanation for this.”

Perhaps I can help. Like most companies, Bechtel was probably just out to maximize its profits, and supervisors no doubt made a calculated decision when weighing a 1999 engineer’s report suggesting structural flaws against the cost of the repairs necessary to remedy those flaws.

As long as significant public works projects or other construction endeavors are handed over to private contracting companies, such decisions balancing public safety with profit maximization will inevitably ensue, and at least occasionally, safety will be overlooked.

Even the most steadfast optimists would likely agree that expecting companies to make ethically sound decisions and threatening hell should they not will not completely solve this problem. What is really needed is more competent and strict oversight.

A recent article in The Boston Globe [“Big Dig leak exposes failures, fuels debate,” Nov. 21] suggests that officials who oversee the Big Dig failed to address the leak problem in a timely fashion, despite documents and evidence that should prompt immediate action:

“Since 1996, the state has paid roughly a half-million dollars for a ‘Central Artery/Tunnel Project Oversight Committee’ to coordinate oversight efforts by the state attorney general, the state auditor, and the state inspector general.

All three of those offices had access to Big Dig managers and contract documents describing the burgeoning leak problem. Still, the pervasive problem came to light only after the Globe detailed it this month.”

The lack of efficient and intelligent investigation on the part of a committee in charge of overseeing a $14.6 billion project should at the very least rattle our faith in the system of accountability imposed on companies in charge of massive building projects. Granted, one poorly run project does not make a trend, but there is little reason for us laypeople to assume that other projects are free from such a plight. After all, there tends to be a lack of transparency in these situations until a major problem has already occurred.

This is not just a problem that the government needs to worry about. In the past decade alone, MIT has taken on at least three huge construction projects in the form of Simmons Hall, the Stata Center, and the new brain and cognitive sciences building. All have been or are being carried out by private contractors. Had construction of Simmons and Stata been a remarkably smooth process, oversight may have been a merely secondary concern. However, both buildings cost roughly 50 percent more than initial estimates, no doubt prompting skepticism from some members of the MIT community wondering about the factors involved in the cost overruns.

It would be foolish to automatically assume that all contracted infrastructure projects are poorly run. That said, especially in the context of the Big Dig’s numerous problems and inefficiencies, oversight and public perception of that oversight demand significant attention, perhaps from the Sloan School. In the absence of satisfactorily competent and clearly publicized oversight committees, a Big Dig induced phobia will no doubt scar the public’s opinion of any building projects that run into difficulties, and that does not bode well for an institution like MIT that has shown a clear commitment to ambitious and cutting edge construction.