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

Nicole Gelinas is the Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Gelinas writes on urban economics and finance, municipal and corporate finance, business issues, and crime. She is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and a member of the New York Society of Securities Analysts. Gelinas has published analysis and opinion pieces on the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union Tribune, the New York Sun, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the Boston Herald. Nicole Gelinas may be reached at communications@manhattan-institute.org.


States, cities, and towns across America must spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually to preserve the nation's infrastructure - the backbone of its private-sector economy - and yet more to build the next generation of roads, bridges, tunnels, and dams. Spending so much money wisely is daunting. The good news: no matter how complex and expensive any future project is, it is unlikely to be more so than the "Big Dig". The Big Dig is Massachusetts's three-decade-long quest to bury and expand the Central Artery, Boston's major interstate highway, and carve out a new underwater tunnel to Logan Airport.

Conceived in the 1970s and finished, more or less, in 2005, the Big Dig is modern America's most ambitious urban-infrastructure project, spanning six presidents and seven governors, costing $14.8 billion, and featuring many never-before-done engineering and construction marvels. Long before construction peaked around the turn of the millennium, eating up $100 million a month for three years, the Big Dig was a local legend, spawning dozens of jokes. (Wouldn't it be cheaper to raise Boston than to bury the highway? Congressman Barney Frank asked.) Later, when fewer people viewed the Dig whimsically, it was the setting of a 2002 murder-mystery novel. And last year, after falling concrete panels in a Big Dig tunnel that had been open for three years killed a 38-year-old car passenger, the project became a reminder that infrastructure failure can exact a cruel price.

Every major decision that could conceivably be made on an infrastructure project was made on the Big Dig. These decisions ranged from how to pay for it; to how to forge the public and political support for it; to how to manage its construction and maintenance. Its stewards have encountered every imaginable public-infrastructure pitfall, and fallen into many. The Big Dig's story is an invaluable lesson: How can America invest in infrastructure - and do it smartly?


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