A paper first published in The Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Autumn 2007 © The Manhattan Institute. Reprinted with permission.
Published here March 2008.

Introduction | The Original Concept | A New Approach: Mitigation | A Clever Political Strategy
Successful Innovative Technology | Cost and Questionable Accounting | Misplaced Responsibility
Allocation of Project Risk and Responsibility | Political Power, a Warning | Conclusion

Allocation of Project Risk and Responsibility

But Bechtel and Parsons never took on any performance risk - risk that the public sector carries as the ultimate funder and manager. If the project were an investment-banking deal, Bechtel would have been an advisor counseling a company on whether to undertake a merger, not an investor in that merger. "Our contractual responsibility as management consultant was to deliver a professional standard of care, not to guarantee the contractors' work," says Keith Sibley, Bechtel and Parsons's longtime Big Dig director.

It's a crucial distinction: Bechtel and Parsons promised not perfect results but professional advisory and management work - and reasonable people may differ about what constitutes "professional." It is particularly difficult to assess decisions made under an "integrated project organization," where everything is opaque about who was responsible for which decisions, or whether particular decisions were the result of public and private collaboration. This problem of murky responsibility came up repeatedly during the Big Dig, but most tragically with the ceiling collapse.

Designers engineered a lightweight ceiling for the tunnel in which Milena del Valle died. But Massachusetts, annoyed by cost overruns and cleanliness problems on a similar ceiling, and at the suggestion of federal highway officials, decided to fit the new tunnel with a cheaper ceiling, which turned out to be heavier. Realizing that hanging concrete where no built-in anchors existed to hold it would be a difficult job, the ceiling's designer, a company called Gannett Fleming, called for contractors to install the ceiling with an unusually large built-in margin for extra weight.

Gannett specified the use of anchors held by a high-strength epoxy. Shortly after contractors installed the ceiling, workers noticed that it was coming loose. Consultants and contractors decided to take it apart and reinstall it. Two years later, after a contractor told Bechtel that "several anchors appear to be pulling away from the concrete," Bechtel directed it to "set new anchors and retest." After the resetting and retesting, the tunnel opened to traffic, with fatal consequences.

In hindsight, they all did the wrong thing. The real problem was that the poorly labeled and poorly marketed "fast set" epoxy that the contractors used for the ceiling wasn't suitable for long-term loads of any type. The company that made the glue, Powers Fasteners, didn't clearly warn that the epoxy wasn't interchangeable with another, suitable "standard set" epoxy that it made. The National Transportation Safety Board's report noted the company's failure, and Massachusetts has indicted Powers for criminal negligence.

But the feds also mentioned that neither Gannett nor Bechtel and Parsons had thought about the ceiling's long-term performance, when the earlier ceiling failures should have made it clear to both Bechtel and a construction contractor that reinstallation hadn't worked. Finally, the report points out, once the tunnel opened in 2003, Massachusetts was supposed to conduct regular inspections, which likely would have revealed the ceiling panels' obvious displacement well before the collapse.

Misplaced Responsibility  Misplaced Responsibility

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