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intcvlcphlga

From the levees in New Orleans to Boston's Big Dig

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This week, New York City's Triborough Bridge which ties Long Island, Manhattan and the mainland of New York state together, celebrated its 70th birthday. The Hoover Dam also hails from the 1930s. Last year, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in North America that connects Brooklyn to Staten Island turned 40. The Brooklyn Bridge is 123 years old. Through the combined efforts of the French and the U.S., the Panama Canal was completed over 90 years ago.

We have the knowledge and the ability to create just about anything yet among other infrastructural shortfalls, the tunnels of the Big Dig leak and ceiling panels collapse and the levees of New Orleans get undermined by a storm that was of less strength than their design strength. Why is it that the quality of our modern day infrastructure does not seem to equal that of our predecessors?

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This week, New York City's Triborough Bridge which ties Long Island, Manhattan and the mainland of New York state together, celebrated its 70th birthday. The Hoover Dam also hails from the 1930s. Last year, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in North America that connects Brooklyn to Staten Island turned 40. The Brooklyn Bridge is 123 years old. Through the combined efforts of the French and the U.S., the Panama Canal was completed over 90 years ago.

We have the knowledge and the ability to create just about anything yet among other infrastructural shortfalls, the tunnels of the Big Dig leak and ceiling panels collapse and the levees of New Orleans get undermined by a storm that was of less strength than their design strength. Why is it that the quality of our modern day infrastructure does not seem to equal that of our predecessors?

I may be incorrect on this, but I don't believe the levees in New Orleans were built in our generation, or even that of our parents. Maybe NCB can offer some information on this, but the levee system dates back to 1726. Which levees were built at what time, who knows.

And this may be way off here, but so many things these days are "value engineered." So many engineers out there want to cut corners to reduce cost, but so do governments. When things are done cheaply, they can very easily be done incorrectly and substandard.

I don't know what caused the problems with the Big Dig, but I have my suspicions that there was quite a bit of "value engineering" done on that project. The actual construction could play a huge part in it, though. Laborers these days don't seem to take pride in their work like those who built many of the world's superstructures in the past.

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I think the Levees in wuestion were built in 50's or 60's, not sure though.

We can build things as good as we used to, and much better. We have simply found ways to cheap out, often sacraficing quality. Look to the European countries if you want to see state-of-the-art levees, it can be done, for a price.

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There are not as many Americans in the technical skills now, and what ones there are, are subjugated by incompetant management and bean counters who are unable to see the larger picture. And the present generation coming up is one of the least educated in modern history. We have become a nation that worships instant glory and fame (Sports stars & American Idol) and have little interest in the hard work to become an engineer, a mathematician, a physicist, etc. The fact, it is socially unpopular to pursue science now is an indication that more big dig disasters are on the way.

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There are not as many Americans in the technical skills now, and what ones there are, are subjugated by incompetant management and bean counters who are unable to see the larger picture. And the present generation coming up is one of the least educated in modern history. We have become a nation that worships instant glory and fame (Sports stars & American Idol) and have little interest in the hard work to become an engineer, a mathematician, a physicist, etc. The fact, it is socially unpopular to pursue science now is an indication that more big dig disasters are on the way.

This is very true and it concerns me greatly. Great minds seem to be few and far between these days. I will say, however, a classmate of mine, from junior high up until high school, actually isolated and identified a new form of bacteria as a Science Fair project in junior high school. She continued to tweak her project as we went into high school and even made it extremely far in national science fair competitions. This girl came from a family in which both of her parents were scientists, so she had the backing at home. She certainly wasn't going to get it in the public school system (especially here in Louisiana,) but she certainly had the school system's support when she put them in the limelight.

All of the above said, this girl was the only person I ever knew who was that intelligent (or at least showed it) in all my years in school. To this day I don't know where she is, but I hope she's working as a scientist and doing the world many favors.

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There are not as many Americans in the technical skills now, and what ones there are, are subjugated by incompetant management and bean counters who are unable to see the larger picture. And the present generation coming up is one of the least educated in modern history. We have become a nation that worships instant glory and fame (Sports stars & American Idol) and have little interest in the hard work to become an engineer, a mathematician, a physicist, etc. The fact, it is socially unpopular to pursue science now is an indication that more big dig disasters are on the way.

I think you are overstating it quite a bit. The engineering profession in the US, North America, and the rest of the developed world is much better than it was during the time of our predecessors. Much, much better. Granted, I'm not too far removed from grad school (engineer). But that's not the problem, I am supremely confident in that. Trust me-- if it turns out an engineer screwed up in the case of this Boston Tunnel tragedy, not only will he/she face possible criminal charges, but he will have his license removed permanently if he/she (or they) is found to be in violation of his/her ethical obligations to the profession (which is ultimately to the public and society), never to work again in the business.

This is very different than in previous generations, as engineers didn't have to be a licensed professional (or, people didn't check up on people as rigerously) to do work, as is my understanding. Today, one MUST be a licensed professional engineer (P.E.). To get your PE, you must graduate from what is called an ABET accredited institution (typically major universities). Or an institution with an accredited program (like a Master of Science in Civil Engineering).

Then, you must pass the FE (Fundamentals Exam), which is an 8 hour test which covers EVERY possible subject related to engineering, such as all levels of math, science, thermodynamics, physics, chemistry, electronics, computer science, etc., in addition to basic engineering principles in your particular field of engineering.

Then, you must work for 3 (or is it 4) years under a PE licensed engineer.

Then you must take the PE Exam, which is another 8 hour test covering real-life engineer problems. (I haven't taken the PE Exam yet-- not enough years).

Now, what I may conceed to you is that when it comes to higher education (such as graduate education, doctorate, post-doctorate), there seems to be a shortage of Americans in the engineering field (at least civil engineering, which pertains to this thread). When I was in grad school, a clear majority of students were international. In fact, where I went (the U of Ark), due to Walton donations, there was a large fellowship (full ride + very decent salary) for any domestic student willing to get a PhD in civil engineering... but it had been sitting open for a few years, as all the PhD students there were international! (I didn't take it because I already had a job lined up).

I think SBCmetroguy is close-- back in the olden days, structures were more oft than not overdesigned. I think this is in part due to the fact that the tools and methods used to design and construct infrastructure was not as sophisticated as today. But probably more than that, it is, as SBCmetroguy said, because of "value engineering", or trying to cut costs wherever possible, that disasters such as this happen in today's world (but that is preliminary speculation at this point in the Boston tunnel case).

(BTW, I disagree with the basic premise of intcvlcphlga's question-- I think that is a matter of perception, which is human nature, that things in the good ol' days are almost always better than today. There are many examples, which I don't have time now, back in the day of major, horrible, tragic engineering disasters-- check out the History Channel if you don't believe me.)

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I may be incorrect on this, but I don't believe the levees in New Orleans were built in our generation, or even that of our parents. Maybe NCB can offer some information on this, but the levee system dates back to 1726. Which levees were built at what time, who knows.

The first levees in New Orleans were built by French settlers in the early 1700's, and they were along the Mississippi River. At that point there were about 50 miles of levees in the city, most of which were 3-5 feet high, which were plenty high at that point because back then, none of the low lying areas that flood heavily today had even been settled yet. The modern levee system that we have here today was for the most part, built between the 1940's and the late 70's, with most of the work taking place after 1950.

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The first levees in New Orleans were built by French settlers in the early 1700's, and they were along the Mississippi River. At that point there were about 50 miles of levees in the city, most of which were 3-5 feet high, which were plenty high at that point because back then, none of the low lying areas that flood heavily today had even been settled yet. The modern levee system that we have here today was for the most part, built between the 1940's and the late 70's, with most of the work taking place after 1950.

I knew you'd be able to correct me if I was wrong. I wasn't aware that the most recent levee construction was so new. Thanks, Nate.

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i find it absolutely atrocious that the big dig was value engineered and then ended up billions over budget costing no one but the taxpayers.

poor engineering happens all the time, the hartford civic center's roof collapsed in the 70's or 80's (i wanna say 78) because the engineer who designed it didn't take into considering the weight of water and ice (it happened right after a uconn basketball game, luckily everyone had left the building, and it was a uconn engineering graduate who designed it). the same guy designed the babbidge library at uconn... i was a student there when it was being renovated, but my cousins were there before me and remember bricks falling off the side of it... the guy forgot to include the weight of books when he designed it.

i remember seeing something about bridges and a bridge in the northwest i think that shook so wildly in strong, but not uncommon, winds that it shoock cars right off it.

this stuff does happen, and when it comes to things like the levees (although they're a bit older than the big dig tunnels) and the big dig, it shouldn't happen and someone needs to be held responsible. how many people drive through the big dig daily? thousands is my guess, probably tens of thousands. it's unacceptable for this to happen and for someone to call it a simple mistake. in their investigation, they noticed other areas where the ceiling supports were giving way. the fact that it took a death for them to even realize this is horrible.

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i remember seeing something about bridges and a bridge in the northwest i think that shook so wildly in strong, but not uncommon, winds that it shoock cars right off it.

You are thinking of the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster of 1940. This bridge was one of the first of a new class of light suspension bridges that failed when the wind blowing through the bridge started a vibration that matched the natural resonate frequency of the structure led to the famous video of it wildy gyrating and then final failure. It should be noted that at the time of construction, resonate frequencies of structures were pretty much unknown so the failure was related more to the discovery of new a new phenomena. The bridge was designed well enough however where nobody died in the incident.

This is unlike the failure of the big digg which used fairly straightforward well understood construction techniques.

When I was in engineering school, we studied this example as part of a class that focused on engineering ethics in design. It would appear this education is not being provided anymore. The big dig is a big disaster and sadly a big example of the state of American knowhow these days. The shuttle is yet another example of a failure of the current generation of managers and engineers there to run that program. We were supposed to be having 1/week shuttle flights, instead we get one about every 2 years or so.

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Can someone provide some background on the Big Dig in terms of how overbudget it is in both cost and time? I'm guessing to fix all these problems they are looking at another $billion or so of taxpayer money.

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Can someone provide some background on the Big Dig in terms of how overbudget it is in both cost and time? I'm guessing to fix all these problems they are looking at another $billion or so of taxpayer money.

more taxpayer money would really piss off the taxpayers... i think they need to sue the contractors and get them to fix it on their dime.

it was initially thought to cost 4 billion... it cost 14.6 billion... and was 5 years late.

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this stuff does happen, and when it comes to things like the levees (although they're a bit older than the big dig tunnels) and the big dig, it shouldn't happen and someone needs to be held responsible. how many people drive through the big dig daily? thousands is my guess, probably tens of thousands. it's unacceptable for this to happen and for someone to call it a simple mistake. in their investigation, they noticed other areas where the ceiling supports were giving way. the fact that it took a death for them to even realize this is horrible.

No, obviously it shouldn't happen, and yes, I would bet money someone(s) will be held responsible. I would also bet 99.999999% of all civil engineers would honestly and truely agree with you. Who is calling it a "simple mistake"? No one to my knowledge. Hopefully this wasn't due to gross negligence.

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No, obviously it shouldn't happen, and yes, I would bet money someone(s) will be held responsible. I would also bet 99.999999% of all civil engineers would honestly and truely agree with you. Who is calling it a "simple mistake"? No one to my knowledge. Hopefully this wasn't due to gross negligence.

to sum up the quotes i've seen from the guy from the highway commission or something... it was "an isolated incident" and nothing they could have expected... yet on inspection, there were other sections that were starting to give way.

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60-something other sections that used the same ties. And now the tunnel is closed indefinitely...

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To throw my 2 cents in, we're looking to find bookeymen among engineers and contractors and even American workers in general, which just falls into the whole decline of civilization that old men have been going on about since Plato. I place the blame firmly on a corrupted political process where anything, no matter how essential, can fall victim to idealogues and pork barrel politicians. We're now seeing doughnut shops in Indiana making it on homeland security terrorist target lists while funding for NYC is getting cut. The levees in N.O. were in need of repair and known not to be able to withstand the next big storm for a long time, yet the funding that was initially directed at the Arm Corps of Engineers to fix them was diverted to finance tax cuts just so a bunch of baby-kissing types can make themselves look good. I wouldn't be suprised that as the Big Dig was going over-budget and past deadline, there were a lot of politicians putting a lot of pressure on the engineers and contractors to cut corners and get it done. It's amazing how immediate the governor and others were in calling for heads to roll as soon as the accident happened. It's a real shame that the accident is being used by political opportunists to give a more legalistic precedent to scapegoat people they've been going after for a long time already for reasons more political in nature. I was just watching Backdraft tonight and I think that movie really sums it up well.

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Politics. The Big Dig was one of the most politically screwed up projects of all time. And it went both ways - political factions trying to exert control by regulation and then by undermining the opposing faction's efforts. And then the contractors took advantage of this. There was poor overall vision and oversight - they jumped into the project without really understanding what they were getting into, and in the end, instead of making sure the project was completed safely and efficiently, they tried to use it as a political football.

Unfortunately, I think the real reason why we have som many failed projects since the 50's is that our political and corporate goals have overshadowed our responsibility for quality and efficiency.

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This is unlike the failure of the big digg which used fairly straightforward well understood construction techniques.

I'm not sure the precedent of the use of the particular ceiling structure that failed, but the Big Dig was miles away from straightforward. There's a laundry list of examples where new techniques were used and old techniques were put to new use. They didn't simply dig a hole and put a roof on it, it was way more complicated than that.

I'm guessing to fix all these problems they are looking at another $billion or so of taxpayer money.

I'm guessing if Romney and Riley want to have a political future of any kind, taxpayer money will not be used. I'm imagining Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and Modern Continental have put some money aside (Modern probably has a bankruptcy lawyer on speed dial).

Boston Globe article about Modern Continental.

Anyone who ever signed off on any work related to the Big Dig is surely looking for a good criminal defense lawyer too.

Unfortunately, I think the real reason why we have som many failed projects since the 50's is that our political and corporate goals have overshadowed our responsibility for quality and efficiency.

Reactionary fear of the media on the part of local and national politicians led to the Big Dig being the most politicized project in history (prior to the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site), and the most mismanaged.

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I'm not sure the precedent of the use of the particular ceiling structure that failed, but the Big Dig was miles away from straightforward. There's a laundry list of examples where new techniques were used and old techniques were put to new use. They didn't simply dig a hole and put a roof on it, it was way more complicated than that.

i think i read somewhere that the type of ceiling they used isn't normally what would be used in a tunnel like that.

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i think i read somewhere that the type of ceiling they used isn't normally what would be used in a tunnel like that.

I don't like to Monday Morning quarterback what I read/heard in the media, but they are saying that at least several people questioned why the roof was built like that, and why it was even needed at all (questioned when it was being designed/built, not in retrospect). What collapsed is in effect, a drop ceiling made of 3-ton tiles. The actual tunnel ceiling sits above it.

This Globe photo illustrates the point:

bigdigceiling.jpg

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Does anyone know if there are any Mob ties in the Big Dig? I know in New York, the construction industry is famously mafia connected to the point where you can bid out your concrete contract to whomever you want as long as you give it to this family if you're building on the East Side of Manhattan or this other family if it's the West Side.

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Does anyone know if there are any Mob ties in the Big Dig?

The mob is pretty much gone in New England, and it was bigger in RI than it ever was in Boston.

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(BTW, I disagree with the basic premise of intcvlcphlga's question-- I think that is a matter of perception, which is human nature, that things in the good ol' days are almost always better than today. There are many examples, which I don't have time now, back in the day of major, horrible, tragic engineering disasters-- check out the History Channel if you don't believe me.)

I agree that todays 24-hour info-tainment culture amplifies things that people just accepted as part of life years ago. If the Big Dig 'disaster' (one person died, it's terrible, but I hate that the word disaster has been slapped on this by the media) happened 30 years ago, people would have read the story, thought it was horrible, then went on with themselves until there was something new to tell. Today the media gets everyone worked up into a frenzy with little to no actual real information to back it up.

Though I do also agree, that there is much more of a desire now to trim every possible cost, often at the expense of safety, and too many decisions get made by bureaucrat who have no knowledge or authority to be making such desicions. Not only in engineering, but in all facets of life.

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Cost-cutting is rampant right now due to insane increases in material costs. We have projects at my job that when they go to PS&E they've doubled from their last cost estimate, and not small doubling like 150k to 300k, big doubling like 4.5 million to 9 million...

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While there have no doubt been huge failures in the past like the aforementioned Tacoma-Narrows Bridge, I guess part of my premise for starting this topic is that there used to be a component of civic pride that could kind of trump notions of value engineering that doesn't seem to exist as much today. When it was built (and to this day), the Brooklyn Bridge commanded much respect both as an engineering feat as well as a beautiful structure. The thought was that in order to connect Brooklyn to Manhattan you didn't just have to build a bridge, you had to build the most beautiful marvel of engineering and design of the day. Perhaps there is a bit of a resurgence with every city now seeming to want a building by the most fashionable architect of the moment (Gehry, Calatrava, etc).

Another vein of thought is a debate that's been going on in New York ever since 9/11 and it is precisely the question of whether we as a city/society can achieve a civic monument the way we used to be able to. It's not just whether or not we have the scientific knowledge and the skilled labor to execute it, but whether or not we have the civic, economic and political will to execute a beautiful piece of architecture or infrastructure. I think the answer is probably not, but I do hold out some hope that the jury is still out. For now though, at the World Trade Center, David Childs is giving us a "Freedom" Tower design that pales in comparison to the towers designed by almost every other entrant to the Ground Zero competition. Sciame's value engineered memorial is even worse than the banal design by Michael Arad. And, the only interesting building to be proposed for the site, Snohetta's cultural building, has most likely been cut from the project completely.

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