Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Big Dig Ducts Dumbly Dodge Dough

The headline in the Boston Globe was not as catchy as this blog posting - the Globe's headline reads: "Big Dig's $13.9m ducts go unused - cellphone firms bypass conduits".

For those of you unfamiliar with the Big Dig, it is a $15B system of roadways and other infrastructure improvements to downtown Boston which is so over budget and so late, and so frought with problems - major, ongoing problems - that it will be used in project management textbooks for many, many generations as an example of how not to manage a large project. Ranjit Biswas and I will cover this project in our upcoming book, due to our proximity to the Big Dig and our experience - as customers and drivers as well as 30-year PMs in the Boston area.

So what's all this about ducts? It seems the designers of the Big Dig thought they were smart to invest millions of dollars building hidden ductwork into the Big Dig's tunnels, which would ostensibly contain utility cables, cellphone, fiber, and so on, for a fee. And they were smart to come up with the idea. But they failed a basic premise of project management - stakeholder analysis and communications. The problem is that the conduits the designers used are too narrow for the cables. Even if they were not too narrow, the utility companies say, they've found it cheaper to drill their own new passages through the (already leaking) walls or to affix their cables to the inside walls of the tunnels.

The Big Dig Ducts were installed at a cost of $13.9M, with the anticipation that rent money from the cellphone and other utilitites would pay for their construction and then offer income to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA), which operates the tunnels.

In any case, as PMs we know the root cause of this problem: ironically, it's communications. Here we are talking about cellphone ductwork, but apparently nobody from the company selected by the MTA used one of those cell phone devices to call the cellphone companies and ask them how the design would best accomodate their network. And now, according to the Globe, that company is actually suing the MTA because they are not getting revenue from the cellphone companies. Even the Massachusetts Legislature got in the act, passing a law that required the cellphone companies to provide service by the end of 2006. We're almost halfway done with 2008 and and - no dial tone. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

It's sad because there is still no promise date from the cellphone companies as to when there will be service in the tunnels. Sad, because - amazingly - the design of the duct system mirrors the "epoxy-bolt" design of the ceiling (which I will blog about later) which had a failure causing a fatality in 2006. It can't get much sadder than that.

Here's a picture showing the Big Dig under construction:

You can read the full, sad story here. And look for more coverage of the project management aspects of the Big Dig in our upcoming book, The Fiddler on the Project.

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