No Ayn Rand heroes for today's megaprojects

Lessons from Boston's Big Dig for confronting climate change

Published July 24, 2006 7:06PM (EDT)

As someone whose mother and sister were born in Boston, and who still regularly visits relatives in southern New Hampshire, I have been following the tragic story of the Big Dig closely. And not just because I will be trying to escape from Logan Airport later this summer. The Big Dig is one of the most complex transportation projects ever attempted. If, as David Warsh suggests in yesterday's edition of Economic Principals, his economic affairs newsletter, we will in the future face the necessity of undertaking many more such megaprojects to cope with the challenges of climate change, then we had better study the lessons of the Big Dig closely.

Warsh links to a fine introduction to the history of what was officially known as the Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project, Chapter 5 of Thomas P. Hughes' "Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World." The last line of the chapter made me put the entire book on my reading list: a reference to how "In the epilogue we, too, shall portray the Central Artery/Tunnel Project as manifesting a future trend -- toward a postmodern style of coping with complexity."

Complexity is the problem. Long gone are the days when New York's Robert Moses could rip apart neighborhoods with a stroke of his pen. Environmental restrictions, mobilized neighborhoods and other activists, and the sheer engineering obstacles involved in dealing with modern urban infrastructure made the Big Dig a nightmare. As Hughes notes, "The trade-offs and negotiations required of architects involved in a large public works project like CA/T distinguish them from the heroic and mythical architectural type portrayed by Ayn Rand in her novel, 'The Fountainhead.'"

That comment segues nicely back to Saturday's Washington Post story on the Big Dig, which implies fairly strongly that the reliance on the private sector for oversight of the project may have contributed to its cost overruns, building flaws and, most recently, the death of Milena Del Valle. You can see the paradox right away. Adding more oversight to a project on the scale of the Big Dig amps up the overall complexity. But attempting to simplify by removing regulatory obstacles for such a project invites disaster.

Can the private sector handle the complex challenges of the 21st century? Can the government? Can any combination?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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