A Handy Guide to the Big Dig Screw-Up

Who was watching out for the integrity of the work on the Big Dig? Everyone and no one    
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 27, 2006

The recent scene at a Big Dig tunnel
As people try to sort out responsibility for the fiasco that led to the death of Milena Del Valle in the I-90 connector tunnel — and more broadly, for the general mismanagement of Big Dig design and construction — you might have a hard time keeping the players straight. In large part, that’s due to the incredibly bizarre structure of authority that has been in place all these years.

Normally, lines of responsibility for a construction project form a classic pyramid. At the top is the project’s owner, who has direct authority over the lead design firm and general contractor, which in turn oversee their subcontractors, who oversee the workers.

But the Big Dig chain of command is shaped more like an hourglass. Filling the bottom are a host of design and construction companies entangled in joint ventures with one another, and unions representing laborers across those ventures. At the top are a seemingly endless number of governmental bodies with oversight authority over the project but little direct control.

And clogging up the middle is a solidified GLOB — the Giant Land of Bechtel. The GLOB consists of the Bechtel Group and Parsons Brinckerhoff partnership (B/PB), along with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA), which owns the project. Technically, B/PB works for and answers to the MTA. In reality, they have meshed into an impenetrable web of mutual protection.

The GLOB took shape at the beginning, with the 1985 decision to award the B/PB joint venture not just the Big Dig’s general-contracting duties but also its design and oversight functions. The co-dependency between B/PB and its state overseers blossomed in the early 1990s, when Mr. Privatization, then-governor William Weld, moved the Big Dig to the Massachusetts Highway Department, where he and his buddy James J. Kerasiotes helped hide B/PB’s cost overruns from, among others, the federal government. Finally, in 1997, with scandal already thick, the state legislature not only moved the project out of direct state control and into an independent authority; it also helped create the “integrated project organization,” which effectively melded B/PB and MTA into a single entity — the GLOB that exists to this day, which continues to insist that everything on the project is just dandy.

Adding to the confusion have been the myriad connections within and across these three levels of authority. Some have been well-noted, as when Peter Berlandi simultaneously served as a top aide to Governor Weld and as a Bechtel liaison to Weld’s administration. Others creep under the radar; for example, the critical US Senate Appropriations Committee counts among its long-time members California senator Dianne Feinstein — whose husband, Richard Blum, holds a controlling interest in Perini Corp., one of the biggest contractors on the Big Dig.

How can you be expected to keep track of all these players — and their conflicts of interest — without a scorecard? You can’t, of course. So the Boston Phoenix has put together this handy guide to help you keep track of the various participants and their doings since Big Dig construction got under way in 1991.


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