Big Dig planners eye earlier finish
By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 04/18/2003
earful that the Big Dig will encounter additional delays and cost millions of dollars more than current estimates, the project's managers have been quietly hashing out a plan to open the last section of tunnel roadway as early as Thanksgiving weekend.
Bechtel's mistakes drive up cost overruns, and company profits.
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Dubbed Plan B, the new method of completing the downtown portion of southbound Interstate 93 would probably cost tens of millions of dollars up front to speed up the schedule, officials said yesterday. But they also said it could save money in the long run by dramatically reducing construction time and overhead costs.
The numbers will not be finalized until next week, when the Big Dig's private-sector managers, Bechtel/
Parsons Brinckerhoff, finish a cost-benefit analysis that will compare the immediate costs with any savings from shortening the work schedule.
Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello said he will make a final decision on the plan based on that analysis.
The decision hinges on the money, said project director Michael P. Lewis.
"It's really not an engineering obstacle," said Lewis, who has led the effort to shave as much as four months off the current plan by shifting traffic and work schedules in the area of Dewey Square.
Several powerful business and political interests already apprised of the plan are enthusiastic, because it would ensure a smooth flow of traffic for the Democratic National Convention in July 2004.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that project officials had assured him that I-93 south would be finished in time for the convention, with or without Plan B.
"If they get it done by next week, I'd be happier," Menino said. "I'm realistic. I know it takes a while for these things, but we would like to have it open for the convention."
Richard Dimino -- president of the Artery Business Committee, a group of downtown business representatives and residents -- said his committee endorses the plan because it might allow Big Dig workers to tear down the unsightly elevated Artery near the FleetCenter before the Democrats convene there.
"That would give visitors a real vision of the great future, and the opportunities of Boston," Dimino said.
Because of previous delays, the southbound tunnel had not been expected to open before March 30, 2004. The several months of work required to dismantle the elevated Artery wasn't due to begin until the tunnel was completed.
For several years, project officials expected to open the I-93 south portion of the Big Dig by Dec. 10. But that plan seemed doomed by late 2001, after a leak in the Fort Point Channel tunnel forced a protracted work stoppage. The delays were compounded when installation of the road system's electronic control network fell well behind schedule.
As a result, I-93 north did not open until March 29, 3 1/2 months late. It was assumed at that point that I-93 south would follow a year later.
But federal auditors suggested in a report this week that March 2004 was optimistic. A study of the Big Dig's schedule conducted for the US Department of Transportation's inspector general found that the tunnel might not be finished until June 10, 2004, which would cost tens of millions of dollars and nearly empty the project's rapidly diminishing contingency fund. It would also bring the project's completion right up against the Democratic National Convention, scheduled to bring about 25,000 visitors to the city.
The contractor responsible for finishing the last quarter-mile of roadway on I-93 south is Modern Continental Construction Co., which is in such dire fiscal health that the state has been forced to warn bond investors that the company could go bankrupt. Bankruptcy would be expected to delay work and drive up costs.
Project documents show that Modern Continental has fallen several weeks behind schedule on the I-93 south job. More than a quarter of the work was to be completed by now, but because of the delays to the northbound tunnel opening, Modern Continental has finished less than 20 percent, the documents show.
Lewis said yesterday that project officials are negotiating with Modern Continental executives about the speed-up plan, which could place even greater immediate financial hardships on the firm. To accelerate work, Modern Continental would need to have enough cash on hand to pay for the extra shifts and overtime required by Plan B. But the firm would be paid at a higher rate for the accelerated work, making Plan B more profitable in the long run. The company's officials declined to comment.
Last month, the Turnpike Authority was prepared to increase Modern Continental's I-93 south contract by $25 million, or 6 percent of the original $415 million bid price, because the firm says it has encountered 345 separate obstacles and issues since beginning work last summer.
Sean O'Neill, a Big Dig spokesman, said the $25 million contract increase, which has not been finalized, had nothing to do with Modern Continental's precarious fiscal situation or with Plan B and was instead geared to resolving the 345 claims for additional funds that Modern has submitted. But Plan B, if adopted, might render some of those 345 issues irrelevant, he added.
The current construction plan calls for sending traffic through a new, quarter-mile submerged highway section near International Place and then into the west side of the Dewey Square Tunnel while workers rehabilitate the other side. While details of Plan B haven't been disclosed, it includes leaving traffic in the east side of the tunnel, where it currently flows. Under Plan B, the new tunnel would open as early as Nov. 28.
Lewis said Plan B would have no impact on the final completion date for the Big Dig, which will probably be May 27, 2005. But Lewis said his staff, as well as Bechtel/Parsons, are also looking for ways to hasten that schedule.
Raphael Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.