Fear and Loathing in the Big Dig

Hi Will — I will be honest with you, the front page Globe article on the lights in the new central artery/harbor tunnels scared the bejezus out of me. Not so much because of the thousand-pounds of lights hanging precariously over my head every time I go to the airport, but moreso the final comment of the engineers who, basically, “don’t write anything down because it will be used as fodder in a lawsuit”. This type of culture and attitude can only end in disaster.

I know the dig is plagued, but the story told by the Globe certainly does not inspire confidence in the current administration’s ability to tackle severe, institutional issues within the organization. I’d be curious of your take on it — and I’d be curious as to what the “chain of command” actually is for the organization — is the leadership elected? appointed? if so by whom?

Basically, who is responsible and who is empowered to clean up that mess?


7 replies on “Fear and Loathing in the Big Dig”

  1. Basically, since the transportation reforms last session, the Department of Transportation is governed by a single board appointed by the Governor.

    I have found the Secretary, Jeff Mullan, to be a smart, thoughtful, good guy. He has admitted that he mishandled this badly. I also have a high general opinion of the engineers at DOT. The ones that I have dealt with have been honest, competent and very committed to their work.

    My sense is that many are badly overextended in their responsibilities and under a lot of pressure and that leads to many problems. In a time of limited resources, there are no easy solutions to the problems. People have to just bear down, make sure that the most important things done and be as candid as possible about the things that aren’t getting done. Candor will help set more realistic expectations and allow the definition of clear priorities.

  2. Thank Will – I appreciate the clarification on the governance. It’s good to hear your opinions of the players – the Globe article pretty much makes most of them look like buffoons. I know the press is not always as “impartial” as we would like. Are the board members on the Transportation committee elected or appointed? Can one contact them to express concern?

  3. I will say I’m disappointed by Jeff Mullan’s decision to step down over a $10,000 pay dispute. Many of us have taken much bigger hits for the privilege of serving. I wonder whether there is a back story.

  4. There’s gotta be more to it than a pay-issue. Honestly, I would not be surprised if Patrick asked him to step down/out. I feel sorry for him — in the private sector issues like this are rarely played out in such a public forum, but to have the comments from Ernst published, and then to have him suspend Ernst…. Well, the entire situation seems lost at that point given the history and any CEO of a private company would probably have lost board confidence and been asked to leave (at least in theory that’s the way it works — I’m not here to defend Enron and the multitude of other examples of failure in the private sector).

    On the other hand, it seems like Mullan has been let down significantly by his people. Statements to the Globe and failure to report issues up-the-line just plain illustrate a level of frustration and incompetence that should not be permitted.

    Perhaps it is time for someone “fresh” to come in and start over (again…). It’s an opportunity to change culture and to deal with the organizational structural issues.

    As with all organizations, it’s all about leadership and organizational dynamics and as you noted, this is one pathological case of failure dating back well before the current administration and management.

    As a convertible-driver under those thousand pound lights I cannot say I’m disappointed we get to “roll the dice” again. I only hope Patrick is able to find the right talent to lead the organization towards addressing the cultural issues.

    Any idea what the process for replacing Mullan will be like?

  5. Saw Richard Davey on the tube this morning – seems like a pretty good pick, anyone who’s run the T knows troubled organizations. Fingers crossed.

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