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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.


Subterranean technology

Added variable of Big Dig crunch: systems

By Scott Kirsner, 9/30/2002

After all the billions spent, all the excavation, all the concrete and sweat and steel, the opening of two major sections of the Big Dig later this year hinges on technology. It may be surprising, but this massive bricks-and-mortar project will open on time, or not, based on the readiness of systems and software that will ensure drivers' safety.

This is crunch time. Big Dig engineers, their contractors, the State Police, the Boston Fire Department, and Boston EMS are meeting regularly as they work toward the opening of the tunnels that will connect the Mass. Pike to the Ted Williams Tunnel, scheduled for early November, and the underground northbound section of I-93 leading to the Zakim Bridge, scheduled for early December.

It's a crunch that would seem familiar to anyone who's known the incredible stress of lurching toward a major deadline. But intrinsic to this crunch is the added responsibility of knowing that the goal isn't just to get the tunnels and bridges open on time, but to make sure the technology is in place to enable the safety agencies to respond quickly to accidents, breakdowns, fires, and other incidents that could affect the 200,000-plus drivers who will use the new roadways.

The centerpiece of the Big Dig's technology budget is the Integrated Project Control System (IPCS), which could cost nearly $200 million by the time its contractor, Honeywell Technology Solutions, is done with it. This is the network of cameras, traffic-flow sensors, carbon monoxide gauges, and electronic signage, all linked to an Operations Control Center in South Boston, that will enable the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the state agency that oversees the Big Dig, to manage traffic and respond to emergencies.

Costs for the IPCS system have risen, in part because tunnel construction started before the IPCS design was finalized. A major leak in the Fort Point Channel area stymied installation. And according to a recent Deloitte & Touche audit of the project, Honeywell and its subcontractors remain behind schedule in "cable-pulling" -- installing the wire necessary to connect all the devices and sensors to the Operations Control Center.

The Deloitte report also noted that all those cameras and traffic flow sensors won't do much good without the software to control them, and found that "there have been significant delays with the development of the proprietary software for the IPCS by the ... contractor."

It's surprising, but Deloitte's auditors think that any delays at this point won't be caused by guys taking their time painting the yellow lines or installing the tile too slowly, but because the cable-pullers and software coders are lagging. The IPCS work "controls the critical path to roadway openings," the Deloitte auditors wrote. "There is virtually no history available to determine whether the compressed [system and software] testing period that the Project hopes to achieve can in fact actually be achieved."

Project engineers are more optimistic than the auditors. Though he admits that the Honeywell work has proceeded slower than he would have liked, Sergiu Luchian, the Dig's Intelligent Transportation Systems Manager, says, "I think we can do it."

But what will probably be in place when the tunnels first open to drivers is an unfinished "beta" version of the IPCS. For example, there may be communications and data links from the tunnels to the control center "that will be temporary, through leased phone lines or microwave" transmission, Luchian says.

Chief engineer Mike Swanson says his team is working with the Boston Fire Department, the State Police, and Boston EMS to create a final list of which pieces of the IPCS must be in place before the tunnels can open. (The Dig needs a green light from the safety agencies before it'll be allowed to open the tunnels to drivers.) The acro nymically-inclined Swanson refers to this list as the MOE/MAS list, for Minimum Operating Elements/Minimum Acceptable Systems.

The MOE/MAS list "is not yet finalized, but it's close," Swanson says. "It's like a Channel Two telethon" that keeps going long past when you'd like it to be over, he jokes.

Swanson offers his assurance that while the full IPCS may not be complete on opening day, all of the technology required to sound the alarm in the event of fires or accidents will be in place before any ribbons are cut. "Without [that technology], you just can't open the road," he says. "We know that people have been waiting a long time, but [we don't] want it open one day sooner than it's safe to do so."

And Boston Fire Chief Paul Christian is equally uncompromising. "Some things may not be done, but they won't be things that immediately impact on fire safety," he says. He's expecting the cameras, the carbon monoxide detectors, the traffic flow sensors, the ventilation system, and the fire-alarm pull boxes all to be working -- and he even says it's important that cellphone service in the tunnels be available so that drivers can report accidents or fires without leaving their cars.

Will the openings of the I-90 and I-93 northbound tunnels be delayed by software and systems that aren't completed and tested in time? It's too soon to know the answer, but the Big Dig's combination of approaching deadlines, high pressure, high safety expectations, and high technology will make for a fascinating autumn beneath downtown Boston.

Antiterrorism tactics

Even before Sept. 11, engineers at the Dig were thinking about how to respond to disasters. One of their scenarios even involved a plane crashing into the Operations Control Center in South Boston on its way to a landing at Logan. The result was the construction of a backup operations center, also in South Boston, to which operators could relocate. "But I didn't think of someone flying into it," says Luchian.

Since Sept. 11, the Dig has been doing a lot more thinking about the threat of terrorism. A consultant, Virginia-based Total Security Services Inc., was hired to conduct a "full assessment of the current infrastructure, security measures, and additional enhancements," according to Dig spokesman Sean O'Neill. "It was a full top-to-bottom review." Some of the suggested enhancements have been made, and others are still in process, he says.

One piece that's in process is a Projectwide Access Control System, a set of motion detectors and low-light cameras that will alert staffers in the Operations Control Center to suspicious goings-on around Dig facilities -- the tunnels, the bridge, the ventilation structures, and the control center itself. A contract called C22A9 includes this technology, and bids were expected to start coming in last week. The bids were anticipated to be in the $6 million range.

One thing that this supplementary technology will do, for example, is alert the control center if someone is trying to gain entry to a ventilation building, perhaps with the intention of introducing chemicals into the tunnels. An alarm would be sounded, and staffers at the control center would be able to train a camera on the area. State Police responsible for the Turnpike's security would also have access to the same images the control center was seeing.

It's almost a certainty that this system won't be in place once the I-90 and I-93 northbound sections open. But it's part of an indication that Dig officials have been taking the possibility of terrorism seriously.

And they seem to be focusing on the right stuff. While advanced technology can bolster security, it's not the answer to everything. Technology doesn't exist yet, Luchian points out, to be able to scan the contents of every car and truck entering the tunnels, looking for explosives or hazardous materials. It's hard enough to look inside baggage at the airport, let alone the inside of vehicles moving at 45 miles per hour. (And that ignores entirely the inherent privacy concerns.)

Instead, the Turnpike Authority is concentrating on what humans can do to foil terrorism. The Pike has contracted with Total Security Services to provide training to all its employees, from maintenance workers to toll collectors, on spotting and reporting suspicious activity. The State Police has also conducted training of its own for officers.

"9/11 made everyone in America wake up," says Major Michael Mucci, commander of State Police Troop E, which has responsibility for the Turnpike. "The goal is to increase the number of eyes you have looking at what's going on."

Timing is everything

Larry Bossidy, the just-retired CEO of Honeywell, one of the Dig contractors that may contribute to delayed openings of the tunnel sections, is in town tomorrow to give a speech at the Marriott Long Wharf to promote his new book. The title? Funny you should ask. It's called "Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done."

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company magazines. He can be reached at kirsner@att.net.

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