Boston 2024: Will the wrong incentives lead to the next Big Dig tunnel ceiling collapse?

Chad O'Connor
Apr 3, 2015 · 2 min read

What scares people the most about the Boston 2024 Olympic bid? Probably not what should.

Horrendous traffic gridlock? Yup.

Political corruption? Sure.

Greedy special interests? That too.

Beyond all of those, and more, should be one crushing fear — building all this promised new infrastructure with all the wrong incentives can kill us. Yes, actually kill us.

In envisioning all the new infrastructure that will have to be built to handle the Olympic throngs, recall the tragic Big Dig tunnel ceiling panel collapse that killed an innocent motorist. A cheaper, inferior epoxy was used in mounting those panels.

From an organizational culture standpoint, an organization will see the wrong behaviors in its members when the wrong incentives are in place; the results can be disastrous, no matter the industry. Cheaper isn’t always better. Faster isn’t always better. Both in concert can be worse.

For example, tell a builder there is money on the line for timely completion, then watch that builder cut corners to keep the project on schedule. When a builder can pocket a huge difference in finishing under budget, then watch that builder figure out every unthinkable way to save a buck here and there.

Perhaps a major organizational project could survive one of those misguided incentives and still come out with relatively little significant long-term damage. Put both of those misguided incentives in place, as was the case in the final days of the overbudget and just-get-it-done-already Big Dig, and real disasters can happen.

A mad scramble to build so much infrastructure for Boston’s bid, if it is lucky (or unlucky?) enough to win the blessing of the IOC, will almost certainly entail mega-contractors looking to leverage every cost-savings advantage and cut every corner possible. Some will trumpet the “achievement” of coming in ahead of time and under budget.

Faster! Cheaper! Better! Right?!

Don’t buy into it so quickly. Remember the organizational cultures where management works to deny evidence that there’s any problems at all. Remember the perpetual maintenance problems that result from poor initial decisions. Remember the casualties, figurative and literal, that can result.

Remember the Big Dig.

If Boston is going to put its heart and soul into an Olympic bid as the Boston 2024 committee hopes, it deserves brutal honesty from the political and economic forces that back it. Boston needs to know the most pessimistic of the worst-case-scenario cost models, then assume it will be even worse than that. Boston needs to know how much every day inconvenience will be needed for years of building, likely worse than what was experienced during the height of the Big Dig.

Boston should be willing to endure those costs for the next pyramids of Giza, for an event that will solidify us as a global city and new infrastructure that will stand the test of time. Boston should not be willing to endure those costs for the next shoddy Big Dig tunnel project.

Chad O'Connor

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#Boston - Fmr biz blog editor @BostonDotCom Teach #OrgCulture, #Advertising, #CrisisComm @Northeastern. Strategy consultant. Rated R.