Political Power, a Warning
After taking a hands-off approach to its project's risks during construction, Massachusetts is today using its most fearsome power. That is, the power to indict, to push Bechtel and Parsons to settle with the state for hundreds of millions of dollars and avoid criminal charges. Massachusetts's approach is a warning to future private-sector contractors and consultants. If something goes disastrously wrong with a project in which thousands of critical decisions were made with public and private cooperation, the state may use the criminal-justice system as a cudgel to deflect its own accountability.
Massachusetts might have avoided some of the problems by transferring certain Big Dig risks to the private sector through discrete, well-defined deals. For instance, by signing a long-term contract with a firm such as the one to help build, operate, and maintain the Zakim Bridge. Such an endeavor, though, would have required aggressive public-sector management of initial costs, scope, and complex contract language, things the state has not excelled at.
Any risk transfer, moreover, would have been limited. Massachusetts could never have turned over full technical, operational, and financial risks of the Big Dig to any reputable company or group. The project had too many unknowns. Smart, reputable companies don't take unlimited risks at the behest of a fickle, indecisive client for a limited profit. The best thing Massachusetts could have done was to realize the project's real risks so that it could manage them effectively.
Democratic governor Deval Patrick now has the most important job. That is, to monitor the Big Dig's technologically pioneering infrastructure to make sure it is holding up now that drivers are using it every day. That is particularly so, since the NTSB report indicates a lack of attention to long-term performance in at least one "safety-critical" area, the fallen ceiling. A key question is whether the tunnels will hold up over time better than have the assets that so many states built so shabbily in the middle of the last century. Examples include the old Artery and the Tappan Zee Bridge that connects New York City to upstate. The Brooklyn Bridge has lasted, seemingly, forever, but will the Big Dig?