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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.

Report predicts Big Dig's tunnels won't open on time

By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 9/13/2002

The much-anticipated opening of the Big Dig's downtown tunnels will occur more than two months later than project officials have stated, but the delays will not increase the project's $14.6 billion price tag, according to a confidential report obtained yesterday.

The independent review of the Central Artery's finances and schedule also found that as much as $108 million in potential savings at the project will likely be spent to pay rising contractors' claims.

The review, commissioned by the state Office of Administration and Finance, was conducted by Deloitte & Touche, a major auditing firm that has periodiocally scrutinized the Big Dig's finances and schedules.

The report comes as the Big Dig has been trying to gain the public's confidence following years of skyrocketing costs and repeated delays. This year the Big Dig has drawn huge crowds to major portions of the project -- the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge and the massive underground northbound lanes -- and has raised anticipation that the project is close to the finish line.

Still, top Big Dig managers said they are committed to meeting their more optimistic schedule.

Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the state's top overseer of the Big Dig, has said repeatedly that the Turnpike/I-90 portion of the Big Dig will open Nov. 8, and I-93 northbound will open Dec. 10. Amorello has given the project a six-week margin of error on opening dates while staying within the Big Dig's current budget.

But the report found that those dates are unrealistic, even if the final construction push goes flawlessly. The reason, the audit states, is that software glitches and a tunnel leak have delayed the assembly by Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc. of the high-tech system responsible for highway air quality, traffic flow, and security.

While project schedules call for Jan. 8 as a worst-case date for I-90, the audit said Jan. 16 is the more probable date, barring more problems.

For I-93 northbound, the official worst case calls for Feb. 10, but Deloitte & Touche says it will probably be March 5.

As for I-93 southbound, which is supposed to open no later than April 10, 2004, according to the project, the audit says that will probably not happen until May 18, 2004 -- if all goes smoothly.

The auditors calculated the dates based on data from interviews and documents from Central Artery officials but used different methods than the project.

Central Artery project director Michael Lewis yesterday said the official schedule is still viable.

"We're getting down to the crunch, we're weeks away from opening the facility and, yes, we've got a lot of issues to resolve," Lewis said. "This is a daily work in progress. [But] I have not developed a new date. . . . We are working on solving issues every day to get as close to our target date as possible."

Still, Lewis said that even if the audit's projected dates are correct, the delays would not affect the Big Dig's budget.

Amorello, in a statement, said the schedule will hold within the six-week margin of error.

Lewis also said he was less concerned about sacrificing potential cost savings and more focused on opening the roads and ensuring that there are enough funds to pay for unforeseeable problems.

Lewis also said software problems experienced earlier this year when auditors began their review have largely been resolved. But he said he was uncertain if Honeywell was fulfilling its agreement to lay 40,000 feet of fiber-optic cable per week on I-90.

The audit said the rate has been closer to 25,000 feet.

Despite the potential delays, top aides to Acting Governor Jane Swift said they were pleased the report found the project's budget will remain unchanged. They also said a few weeks' delay in a project in the works for more than a decade is not a major concern.

"Deloitte & Touche does say the target dates are unrealistically aggressive but that the cost implications are completely accounted for," said Stephen P. Crosby, Swift's chief of staff.

But some critics were not so sure.

"There is a sense that we're in ribbon-cutting mode, but the state needs to be focused to ensure that [the project] doesn't explode beyond the $14.625 billion," said state Representative Joseph Sullivan, cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee. "This is a report that should be heeded because the state is responsible for any additional exposure."

Even if the Big Dig does hold to its schedule, the roadways will still open later than originally promised. A leak on the Fort Point Channel crossing last year robbed about two months from the opening of the Turnpike link, which was originally supposed to occur this month, and from I-93, which was supposed to open next month.

Kevin Sullivan, the current administration and finance secretary, said he will provide the report to the Federal Highway Administration, which oversees the Big Dig, and to Kenneth Mead, the US Department of Transportation inspector.

Amorello, confident in the schedule, has planned public dedication events for the Zakim Bridge on Oct. 4-6.

Raphael Lewis can be reached at rlewis@globe.com.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 9/17/2002.
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