Engineering for Obstacles

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

Everyone can relate to the feeling of frustration and impotence that being stuck in traffic can cause someone.  It is not a pleasant occurrence; especially in other than pleasant weather, or after a hard day at work.  Traffic is also a major contributor in automobile accidents.  It is, overall, a horrible experience.  One of the biggest cities to experience horrible traffic was Boston, Massachusetts.  The Central Artery, or Interstate 93, was a six-lane highway that would, at times, be used by over 75,000 vehicles a day and by the 90’s it increased to approximately 190,000.  This caused great dilemma for the city of Boston, and a solution was sought out.  The central Artery/Tunnel Project, or the Big Dig, was a project which was designed to alleviate congestion in the metropolitan area of Boston.  It would take over 2-3 decades to complete, and billions of dollars would be spent; but in the end, was the only solution to the Central Artery.

The roads in the city of Boston were built before the invention of the automobiles.  As the years passed, the roads were not suitable for the growing population and the dependency of automobiles.  These roads would be traveled by thousand of people, and the traffic was one of the worst, if not, the worst in all of the United States.  Aside from the problems that the horrific traffic caused the people of Boston, the elevated highway cut off the Waterfront neighborhoods from downtown Boston, thus affecting their revenue.  The solution to these problems was the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, which would replace the elevated highway with an eight-to-ten underground highway and a highway that would have better access to the Logan Airport.  The Big Dig was thought up in the 1970’s but it was not until 1982 that the plan was put into motion.   In 1991, Congress approved the Big Dig after President Reagan vetoed it in 1987.  The plan was to dig the tunnels underground without affecting traffic.  It was anticipated that it would cost 2.8 billion dollars to complete the project, which would conclude in 1998.  Due to difficulties, it was not completed until 2007, costing the Untied States well over 14.6 billion dollars.

The Big Dig faced many obstacles throughout the years.  From the very beginning, President Reagan vetoed the bill because he thought it was too expensive.  When the project was approved and put into motion, the workers had to deal with subway lines, which were already in existence, pipes and utility lines.  Moreover, to the public, the project did not seem to alleviate their city congestion but rather made it worse.   The economy and inflation rates also affected the project, as well as trying to carry on with the project without affecting the traffic.  With a project of this magnitude to work, it is crucial to have the support of the public.  To have this support, and being able to use the taxpayer’s money to fork the bill, it was important to communicate with the public and get their approval.  A primary reason why it took over three decades to complete The Big Dig project can be traced back to public disapproval and billions in taxpayers’ money.

The reason for this blog entry is not to talk to you about The Big Dig project but rather give you an example of obstacles that might arise when working on a project of this magnitude.  The Big Dig, in theory, seemed to be a great solution for the city of Boston traffic dilemma but once implemented it was a disaster and 30 years in the making.  However, the full potential of The Big Dig project, can now be appreciated.  As a result of the Big Dig project, the travel time per vehicle during busy hours has been reduced to 62%.  The annual saving for travelers is estimated to be at $160 million. Therefore, it is vital that engineers learn to communicate their thoughts clearly so that they can get the approval of the public.  Even a great thought-out project, like the Big Dig project, cannot become a reality without the support of the public and proper funding. Therefore, as future engineers we should take into consideration possible obstacles and plan to minimize them accordingly.



15 thoughts on “Engineering for Obstacles

  1. I too have felt the frustrations of being caught in a traffic jam. Those around Fresno don’t really compare to some other places, but the feeling is all the same! I really like the way you incorporated the Big Dig as a solution to a congestion problem, but ended up being a problem all on its own. It’s like with the podcar initiative, or any other innovative solution to transportation problems – many seem very efficient and nice in theory, but once the project gets going, unforeseen issues and obstacles come up and can sometimes halt the project all together, or cost much more than anticipated. Very nice post and very relatable!

    • I think almost everyone can relate to the frustrations that being stuck in traffic can cause. It is just a very unfortunate situation. These kinds of projects are made to decrease traffic and help the population, yet, they become nightmares on everyone while they’re being carried out. Like you said, these projects are nice and effective in theory but so many things can go wrong when the plan in put into motion. The Big Dig would be a perfect example of that. It took 20+ years to complete, and billions of dollars. I can certainly understand the frustration and confusion of the public. No wonder they were outraged. This is why it is crucial to communicate with the public, to show them the benefits of the project and the sacrifices that must be made. No one likes being kept in the dark, and although these projects are not kept in secret, no one goes out of their way to incorporate the public and their opinions. Let them be involved and watch the difference this would make.

    • I think it all comes down to the public. There was no way that someone can prevent the delays brought on by the things such as the weather, but that is no reason to keep the public in the dark. The public should be involved in the project as well. Now, I do not mean asking them to come with their tools and help with the project manually. I mean informing the public, letting them know how the project is advancing and asking for their patience. If the public is informed and they know what is happening, they are more likely to be understanding and patient. In my opinion, that in itself would have overcome a lot of the problems faced.

  2. This was an interesting read. I think you should definitely blog about other engineering projects that seemed great on paper, but in reality turned out to be nightmares, but somehow were completed. I remember seeing a documentary about this project on the Discovery Channel a few years back when I was younger, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I’m glad to know that it was completed and that it paid off. Communication is certainly a very important factor that many engineers struggle to get a handle of. Interesting blog, thanks for posting.

    • These projects are just that, nightmares. It took so long and so much money to be completed. For obvious reasons the public thought it was a waste of time and they were frustrated with the sacrifices they had to make in order for the Big Dig to be completed. This is why, I cant stress enough, communication is extremely important in these scenarios. The public must be made aware of the projects that will affect their lives, and how, in the long run, it will benefit them. The Big Dig was essential for the city of Boston and the public. It needed to be done; it was just unfortunate that it took so long and so much money had to be spent. Although communicating with the public would not have stopped the delays that things such as the weather caused, it would have made it easier on the public. In the end, all work done is for their benefit and the well being of the community.

  3. It’s amazing how long that project took, 9 years over estimated time. There’s many things that must go into planning and designing such a big project. The public approval is important for a project of that magnitude. It reminds me of the project going on in Fresno now, on the 180. Every person I talk to about it has negative comments about it. I believe they are just restless of all the held up traffic it causes during rush hour, but on the end once it is all done, everyone will see the benefits.

    • Yes, that is true Aguilar2007. One of the biggest dilemmas that these projects face is the disapproval of the public. This is why I believe that it is crucial to have good communication skills so that one can try to explain to the public what is going on. At times, they are just frustrated with the delays that these projects cause to their travel, especially when horrific traffic is involved. By communicating with the public, informing them of the plan, the sacrifices that must be made and what benefits the project will have once completed, the public might not be so pessimistic. Most of time the public does not even know what the project is and how it will benefit them in the long run. I believe that the public would be more patient if the benefits are stated and made clear from the beginning and just to add to your comment, I am one of the individuals who at times find myself frustrated with the traffic while trying to merge onto the 168.

  4. Great post on a interesting traffic dilemma! It seems the the “Big Dig” has been beneficial to the Massachusetts community in many way, such as saving money and travel time. The one concern that came to my mind while reading your post was the capability to expand the roadways for future increase in traffic volume. It seems that it would be costly, labor intensive, and be difficult to avoid the issue of keeping the roads open during construction. Do you have any information on how future expansion could be accomplished?

    • No, unfortunately I don’t have information on how future expansion would be accomplished. I know that when they were first designing the “Big Dig” the primary concern was reducing congestion. However, when carrying out the construction phase of the project it didn’t go as smoothly as they had anticipated. So, one can only imagine how chaotic and frustrating it will be when they do decide to expand to accommodate for future population growth.

  5. You make a great point on how vital communication is between engineers and the public. As engineers, being able to communicate with the public is a vital part in any project. Without the public’s support, any project that is done for the good of the public will be seen as unnecessary and a waist of money. This is because even before the project is made, the public must know what their money is going to be spent on and the public must be made aware that the job that is being done is for the better of society, it’s not just tax dollars being spent for the heck of it. You wrote a great article and made a great point on how important communication is.

  6. 150,000 vehicles per day is a large amount for any size highway. It seems to me that the original planners of the highway didn’t account for the increase in usage, so I think that part of the blame for the traffic should be placed on the engineers. I completely agree that public support is of extreme importance for every project in transportation engineering; after all, it is the public that drives on the road once it is complete.

    Thanks for the post,

    Casey Walker

    • Thank you Casey Walker for such a great comment. In a sense, I do agree with your comment. 150,000 vehicles is a long of vehicles for any size highway. Do I believe the blame for traffic congestion should be put on the engineers, not so much. Yes, engineers are responsible for designing roads to meet future demand. However, in a metropolitan area like Boston with a population count of 2 quarters of a million, thats a bit hard to do. As for the public support, I agree 100 percent with your comment. Thank once again for your comment.

  7. Thanks for a very interesting post. It is very interesting that a project that was supposed to be completed in 16 years and cost about 2.8 billion dollars, was finished in 25 years and cost 14.6 billion dollars. one of the key points to consider is that these projects are done to improve the traffic flow. Can you imagine how congested would the roads be if engineers did not develop new routes or did not improve the existing ones? the engineers job is to look into the future and take the best decisions to also benefit people in the future.

    • Thank you diego2186. Like you stated, engineers are responsible for constructing projects to meet future demand. By developing new roads, as you pointed out, congestion seems to decrease.I also know theres a equation in calculating population growth but how accurate can the equation be. As years go by the human population seems to grow at an exponential rate. Although, the Big Dig project was to relieve congestion within the city image how congested the roads will be in 20 years or even 10 from now. I would hate to be stuck in that traffic jam.

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