It's hard to build anything ambitious these days without being second-guessed. But maybe we're not judging them on the right criteria.

Pity the mega-project – the white elephant, the boondoggle, never on time, always over budget.

No one can build anything ambitious these days, it seems, without being second-guessed. Most recently, Brazil is being criticized for its $495 million, 70,000-seat World Cup soccer stadium. Taxpayer backlash and lawsuits have slowed California’s high-speed rail project to a crawl.

But the list of hectored mega-projects goes back years, all around the world: The Chunnel, The Big Dig, bullet trains in Japan and China. The price tag is typically the number one concern, but so is the rationale, the usefulness, the promised economic development returns, and on to many other themes including the design, the execution, and the maintenance. There is an assumption as well that corruption works its way into all modern-day public works.

But is that what happened? That's a question worth asking, says Harry Dimitriou, director of the Omega Centre at the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London. He and his colleagues last week presented their findings in a major new report, "Mega-Projects: Lessons for Decision-Makers," [PDF] at the Meeting of the Minds conference in Toronto (for which, full disclosure, I served as an unpaid workshop moderator).

Diving deep into 30 case studies of $1 billion-plus mega-projects worldwide, Dimitriou and his colleagues found that most mega-projects were actually close to being on time and on budget. But the team looked well beyond the "iron triangle" of fulfilled schedule, budget, and specifications — and indeed that is the major takeaway from the report: Big projects need to be judged for how they meet objectives over time, amid shifting societal, political, and environmental values. Measuring the success of a mega-project is not linear. There are twists and turns not only in terms of engineering and the emergence of new technology, for example, but in the moving target of public expectations. New problems always crop up that such projects are expected to solve, long after the first blueprints were approved.

The long time frame of megaprojects remains problematic, of course. The biggest plans tend get started under political leaders who are almost always gone by the time of completion. That was certainly the case with the $16 billion Big Dig, when Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld was persuaded not to give up on the suppression of the Central Artery through downtown Boston begun under Michael Dukakis. The costs and benefits play out over a different kind of timeline, says Fred Salvucci, who served as Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation through much of the Big Dig project.

The Big Dig suffered from design flaws, faulty ceiling panels that actually killed a motorist, guardrails that decapitate motorcyclists, lighting that needed to be replaced, and sub-standard composition of concrete in its walls. The tunnel box flooded. Unstable soil needed to be frozen with dozens of refrigeration contraptions at a cost of millions. I covered the Big Dig for The Boston Globe, and never concluded that the project was the complete disaster its critics said it was. These days, the traffic flows smoothly, several parallel transit improvements have been completed to accompany the highway project, and the restored surface of the Rose Kennedy Greenway has boosted downtown Boston and its real estate values.

Construction workers inspect the ceiling inside the Big Dig tunnel on Interstate 90 after a portion of the highway's ceiling collapsed in 2008. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Dimitriou recommends honesty and transparency, and an expert articulation of one of the top requirements of any mega-project these days: sustainability. More of his comments can be viewed in this interview in the Globe and Mail.

The Omega Centre report is a welcome addition to the body of research on major urban infrastructure, which includes the book Mega-Projects by Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff. These lessons will clearly be noted by metropolitan regions pushing ahead with newfangled public-private partnerships and a newer category of retrofitting existing mega-projects. Toronto, for example, is on the verge of going forward with a $50 billion regional transit plan. The Second Avenue subway in New York City may well be the next infrastructure case study we’ll all soon be talking about, not least for how the tunnels handle future storms and flooding.

There’s another approach, of course, and that’s not to think in quite such mega terms in the first place. Transportation planners are seeking to use a dormant freight track in the Seaport district in Boston to provide a transit link to the Back Bay. The investment required is the equivalent of diesel-powered streetcars and the construction of only about 300 feet of new track. The traffic congestion problems in the area will be substantially addressed, at a fraction of the cost. Even if it ends up going over-budget.

Top image: A general view of the Arena de Sao Paulo Stadium, one of the venues for the 2014 World Cup, in the Sao Paulo district of Itaquera. The Arena de Sao Paulo Stadium will host the opening match of the 2014 World Cup. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

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