The Culture of Stressing Costs Over Safety

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

July 16, 2006
David Luberoff (Executive Director, The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston)

How could this happen?
How could a project once touted as one of the 21st century's engineering marvels have such fatal and seemingly obvious problems?
In coming weeks we'll learn more details about just what went wrong. But it's already clear that part of the problem was that for more than a decade public officials in charge of the Big Dig overemphasized concerns about the projects' costs and underemphasized the need to build a safe, well-built project.
That's not to say that they ignored concerns about safety and quality. Rather, they created a culture that was skeptical of -- and at times hostile to -- those who raised such concerns. As a result, seemingly minor problems were ignored. Usually this is not a problem, but sometimes this can lead to catastrophic results.
Why would the project's overseers underemphasize safety concerns? Because they fell victim to one of the iron laws of project management: ``Fast, good, or cheap? Pick two."
In absolute terms, the Big Dig was never ``cheap." But in the 1980s and early 1990s, it looked cheap to state officials and project supporters because they weren't using a lot of state or local taxes or tolls to pay for the Big Dig. Rather, they were planning to spend federal funds. This seemed logical because the Big Dig was an interstate highway and since 1956 the federal government had paid about 90 percent of the cost of any highway project that was part of the Interstate Highway System.
Things changed in the mid-1990s, however. Except for the Big Dig, the Interstate Highway System was done. The project's estimated costs continued to grow, which made it increasingly unpopular outside of Boston. The forces came to a head in 1998, when the Republican-controlled Congress refused to cover the bulk of the project's additional costs.
Now state officials had to use large amounts of local tax and toll revenues to pay for the project. As a result, local advocates of other highway and transit projects, not to mention other claimants for public funding, began to see the Big Dig as a competitor.
Moreover, the state's Republican governors were loath to increase taxes or tolls to cover the Big Dig's increased costs because they were touting their records as strong managers who could cut taxes without compromising services or public safety.
So the project's managers increasingly focused on ``cheap" and ``fast" and didn't worry as much about whether the project was ``good."
Several bloggers connected to the project confirm this shift. Friday18, for example, recalled that contractors working on the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge were allowed to go ahead with substandard work even after her husband, who worked for a materials testing company, documented problems with the newly poured concrete. As a result, she notes, she had ``a distinct and utter lack of surprise" when she heard about Monday's tragedy.
This culture has to be fixed before we move forward not only with the Big Dig but with billions of dollars of other proposed highway and transit projects as well.
In the short run, we need to empower highly respected professionals to assess and repair the Big Dig's current woes.
In the long run, it means that senior officials should actively, systematically, and skeptically assess all projections about the estimated costs and benefits of any proposed new project.
To make that process as credible as possible, they should assume from the start that local taxpayers will pay at least half the cost of those projects and that, like anyone who hires a contractor, local taxpayers will be upset if projects have obvious flaws, costs are substantially higher than what they were told to expect, or projects do not provide promised benefits.
Doing so would help ensure that the Big Dig and the next generation of major projects are safe, well-built, and cost-effective. And that would mean that at least one small, good thing came out of Monday's horrible tragedy.