Boston's Big Dig

It’s the project that keeps on giving.

Or, if you are a taxpayer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – or, for that matter anywhere in the USA (since it received Federal funding) – you could say that it’s the project that keeps on taking.

We’re talking, of course, about Boston’s “Big Dig” project.  You know – the one that was supposed to cost $1B and actually cost $15B.  The one which has had ocean water leaking into it, and has had chunks of cement falling from the ceiling?  Yes, that one.  This latest aspect was covered in a revealing front-page story from today’s Boston Globe.
First of all, let us say that this posting exemplifies (but expands rather broadly) the type of long-term, or sustainability, thinking that we’ve been promoting.  Sustainability in this case refers to the long-term positive benefit of the project’s product (the tunnels and roads which make up the Big Dig), and in this case is not only the environmental impact of the project, it’s the environmental impact ON the product of the project.  It seems, according to this article, to come down to one chemical compound.

A very common one, found on most every dinner table.  Right there, next to the pepper.

Guessed it yet?


Chemical formula: NaCl.


It appears that the design of the lighting fixtures, 8-foot-long, 110-pounds each, and numbering about 25,000, did not take into account the corrosive effects of salt on the clips which hold up the lights.

That’s why one of them fell down recently – luckily didn’t kill anyone – and that’s why they have busily been installing plastic straps in the most affected areas to keep the lights up.

If you don’t think this is scary, here is one scary extract:

“On Feb. 16 one crew found a hot spot where all the fastening clips were corroded on nine lights, nearly 1,000 pounds of precariously balanced fixtures hanging over motorists’ heads.”

Holy salt, Batman!  That’s half a ton of Damacles Swords!

The article goes on to say that the real fix to the problem would be a full replacement at a cost of $200M.

When we read the article we thought to ourselves: why didn’t the design include LED lighting?  The cars that are driving underneath the lights are using them.  The mobile phones and televisions that the design engineers use every day – they use them, too.  LED lighting is not as weighty, uses less energy, and wouldn’t be prone to  falling – at least not as prone as these heavy fluorescent fixtures.

A quick internet search yielded several manufacturers who are already making LED-based tunnel lighting.  So this is not just fantasy.

Failing that (we’re no experts on lighting), – or rather, in addition to that, sustainability thinking should have had the engineers taking into account the entry of salt into the equation from two sources: (1) the ocean, and (2) vehicles bringing in salt and other corrosives which are used in the winter to melt snow.

The Big Dig is not even that old.  These failed clip arrangements are not decades in age, only years.  How “long term” was the thinking that went into the design of the project?  Did it make sense to skimp on the design, perhaps saving $5M, only to jeopardize the lives of drivers and end up costing $200M and countless construction delays anyway?

We hope you’ve enjoyed this detour* from a traditional triple-bottom-line view of sustainability, which here includes a safety twist.  But really it’s not that far off track.  Sustainability thinking, when embedded in design, has benefits well beyond making improvements to the financial, ecological, and social aspect of a project’s product.  It also may save lives.


*not that detours would be anything new for the Big Dig.  Even on-line map makers couldn’t keep up with all the twisty turns we had to go through as this project was underway…see this article.