American Public Works Association annual convention attendees learned last week that being associated with perceived ineptitude does not impede career growth.

In 1985, Robert Albee left his job as Boston's chief engineer to oversee engineering and design for the Central Artery Tunnel Project, otherwise known as the Big Dig. Today he oversees mega-utility projects for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., an engineering consulting firm in Watertown, Mass., where he continues to burrow under one of the nation's oldest cities.

Jeffrey Mullan met Albee when he joined the Big Dig project management team two years later to work on right-of-way issues. He's now secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Though Mullan noted he had much more hair 25 years ago, both radiated resiliency - and pride -- borne of their close personal relationship with North America's most extensive tunnel system, a project that's made Massachusetts the nation's most indebted DOT. With the state leading the nation in per-capita highway spending, Mullan spends much of his time figuring out how to pay for projects that were built before he joined the agency.

At times revolutionary, the engineering required to bury 12 lanes of traffic under water, buildings, subways, and sewer lines large enough to drive a truck through was just half the battle. Albee and Mullan's experience shows how easily someone involved in a publicly funded project can become the hapless poster child for behind-the-scenes opportunism (http://www.boston.com/news/traffic/bigdig/articles/1994/09/13/commitments_to_foes_raise_artery_price_tag/) over which they have virtually no control. Built in the 1970s when elevated highways were in vogue, Albee said the Central Artery exceeded its 75,000 vehicles/day design capacity almost from the day it opened. It also divided the city from its potentially lucrative waterfront. Then Gov. Michael Dukakis championed the idea proposed by his transportation secretary, Frederick Salvucci, of eliminating both problems by burying the highway as long as the design could accommodate a double rail line. It does, although the city has yet to integrate its existing rail lines with those provided by the Big Dig.

The city would be closer to realizing Salvucci's second goal - stimulating economic growth by opening up valuable waterfront property to development -were it not for the economic slowdown. Logan International Airport tripled in capitalized value the day the 1.6-mile Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor opened. As I sat marveling at traffic merging in and out its underground ramps, my cab driver reported that congestion is much less onerous.

If it ever looks like you'll be involved in a mega-project, Mullan recommends watching to see if elected leaders are prepared to accept responsibility when things get hot."Big things can get done, and roads can change cities for the better," he said. "But this was front-page news for years and years, and elected officials ran for cover. One reason I like working with Gov. Deval Patrick is that he put a stop to it."

The Big Dig also indirectly contributed to the goal of transforming the state DOT from a highway (PAGE 3, Previous Organization (1970-2009)) to a multimodal agency (PAGE 4, Current Organization (2009- )). Since the 1970s, the state's emphasis has been migrating from highway construction to mass transit construction. To facilitate this, "An Act Modernizing the Transportation Systems of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts" integrated all transportation agencies and authorities effective Nov. 1, 2009.

Click here for more information about the Big Dig and remember: Albee and Mullan survived, and so can you.

- Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief