Spring 1998

No Big Deal

The Big Dig, Boston's Central Artery / Tunnel Project, is one of the largest construction projects under way in the world. As assistant project manager for one of the project's most complex and visible elements, Maureen McCaffrey '86 works every day under the watchful eyes of the media and the public. But this construction industry veteran says she takes it all in stride.

Maureen McCaffrey moves easily amid the rubble and confusion of Atlantic Avenue, weaving though a landscape of construction barriers, tangled hoses and throbbing machinery. She stops to offer directions to a bewildered tourist, then squeezes though a padlocked gap in a chain-link fence marked "Restricted" and "Authorized Personnel Only." Recharged after a rare long weekend, McCaffrey steps lightly across sheets of plywood that have been thrown down over a marsh of mud and concrete runoff. As she makes her way to South Station, everyone greets Maureen by name - everyone with a hard hat, that is. After asking about her vacation, they fill her in with some vital bit of information, or remind her of a concern still to be resolved back in her office.

Boston's Big Dig is no big deal to McCaffrey, who oversees a $400 million contract on the Central Artery/Tunnel Project. She serves as assistant project manager for joint venture partners Perini, Kiewit, Cashman, contractors for the northbound tunnel that will take Interstate 93 from the Massachusetts Turnpike's Chinatown exit along Atlantic Avenue to Congress Street. With a projected work schedule of 66 months, the project is considered by contractors to be one of the most complex jobs in the multibillion-dollar highway renovation project.

"Building the tunnel is the least of our worries," says McCaffrey, a Massachusetts registered professional engineer and a 12-year veteran of the construction industry. "We also have to reroute utilities and build a new Red Line T station at South Station, and an MBTA Transitway bus tunnel that runs on top of the

I-93 tunnel. If we could just build this job and not have all the people around and outside forces to deal with, it really wouldn't be so extraordinary."

Keeping the city open for business throughout the 14-year megaproject is a nightmare for everyone involved with the Big Dig. But McCaffrey's site comprises a mind-boggling confluence of traffic, pedestrians and high-profile abutters. The main administrative offices for the Central Artery project are quartered in South Station; at the other end of the job site sits the headquarters of the Massachusetts Highway Department, where officials can watch the construction on video monitors. Towering over the work site, the Federal Reserve Bank and One Financial Center contain 70 stories full of the city's most powerful bankers and lawyers.

"We have a lot of important people looking out of their windows every day," McCaffrey admits. "When they pick up the phone and call the project director to say, 'I don't like this situation here,' their concerns become our concerns. The Federal Reserve Bank is the financial lifeline to the entire Northeast Corridor. Every check you write goes though here. If we disrupt their operations, it can impact thousands of lives."

Corollary: Burrowing Under Boston, One Section at a Time

All the while, nonstop pedestrian and automobile traffic, as well as MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Area) and commuter trains, run over, around and under the site. "Five days a week, some 30,000 people come out of South Station and walk though our work area," she says. "With so many people looking over your shoulder, you're always going to find someone who's maybe not so happy with what you're doing today. Not a day goes by without a phone call: 'There's a traffic cone out of place; I saw someone without a hard hat; I saw this, I saw that...' We get letters, faxes and 'nastygrams' every day. But every once in a while you get a nice phone call, from someone who likes the sight of the lights on the tower cranes." She sighs. "Not so many, really."

McCaffrey stops to watch with satisfaction as a backhoe rips into a pit of earth where a tangle of steel cable protrudes like stubborn tree roots. "That used to be a T kiosk," she shouts, above the din. Locating and rerouting the conduits for utilities - water, steam, electric, natural gas, telephone and fiber-optic cable - is a time consuming process, but consolidating these lines will improve service and expedite maintenance. Scanning the horizon, McCaffrey spots a group of men, hands at their sides, circling a silent bulldozer, and she goes to investigate.

"Building the tunnel is the least of our worries."If we could just build this job and not have all the people around and outside forces to deal with, it really wouldn't be so extraordinary."

It's a big step up from her previous assignment on the Big Dig, as assistant project manager on the Charlestown loop ramps onto Interstate 93 from Route 1, near Boston Sand & Gravel. The $20 million project was completed in 15 months, under the management of McCaffrey, three other engineers and one superintendent. "Nobody really noticed we were over there," she recalls. "The focus was already on the big Central Artery projects." By contrast, her current project involves a team of 70 full-time engineers and superintendents, and 250 tradespeople, not including subcontractors. Work began in February 1995 and continues 24 hours a day, six days a week, with almost half the personnel on the night shift. McCaffrey's responsibilities are less direct, but there is much more to account for.

"For years as a field engineer," she says, "I was responsible for such tasks as reviewing shop drawings, assisting in resolving design conflicts, coordinating the work of subcontractors, and so on. As an assistant project manager, I deal with much more global issues. I spend most of my time on engineering matters: the project schedule, coordinating special initiatives to save time or improve construction methods, dealing with environmental agencies, and so on.

"To use a football analogy, I coach the defensive team. We try to keep problems from impacting the offensive team (the people constructing the project in the field). My boss, Project Manager Roger Borggaurd, coaches the whole team, while Dick Melin, assistant project manager of operations, is the offensive coach. Our goal as a team is to build the project safely, with minimal impact on the public and the schedule."

McCaffrey and other women working on the Big Dig have received special media attention, including a write-up in the Boston Phoenix last summer. She is matter-of-fact about being a minority. She says she has experienced minimal discrimination and harassment, but maintains that the gender issue is not a factor in her professional life.

"Those of us in construction are less surprised by women on the job," she says. "From an engineering standpoint, we work as a team. It doesn't matter who's male or who's female. Working in crews, you develop relationships that make you work together well." Occasionally, she notes, she is mistaken for a receptionist or payroll clerk, but she excuses these as innocent errors.

"People have these notions in their mind, but they get over it as soon as they figure out who you are. I don't think they have trouble accepting it. But people outside of construction have preconceived notions." Especially enraging is the suggestion that she has succeeded only by the grace of quotas and affirmative action laws.

"That couldn't be further from the truth! Because especially in the engineering profession, if you don't cut it, you don't stay. Nobody gets paid to hang around on a construction site just because they are female. I don't know of any construction company that provides women engineers with employment as a charity."

McCaffrey started with Perini Corp. right after graduation. She was initially skeptical when her father suggested construction as a career, but she has never regretted the choice. She revels in the fast-paced, action-packed nature of her work, although the 12-hour days are wearing. "Construction gives you immediate gratification," she says. "You see progress every day. Eventually, it's finished, and you have cars driving on it. Sitting in one place, designing something, that's not for me. I wanted something more people-oriented and integrated with the real world."

"Everywhere I go, everyone that I run into asks, 'What's up at work?' They blame me for the traffic. They say 'Hey - I could go down there and show you how to build that thing!'"

Engineering and WPI run in the family - at least the family she married into. Her husband, Jeff Breed '85, an electrical engineering major, is a program manager/senior engineer for GTE. Jeff's brother, Steven Breed '87, his sister, Kristen Kibbee '88, and her husband, Stuart Kibbee '89, are working in different branches of engineering. "Everyone asks about my work because it's so massive, and it's tangible - you can describe it and people understand it. That's not true of my husband's job, which is truly high-tech."

McCaffrey is amused by the public fascination with the Big Dig, but modestly shirks the attention it brings. "I don't go out of the way to talk about my job, because I don't want to be a bore. I try to downplay it. When people ask about work, I just say 'it's OK, we're on schedule,' and leave it at that. I think they're just asking out of politeness, and are probably sick of hearing about it."

Apparently they aren't. "Everywhere I go, everyone that I run into asks, 'What's up at work?' They blame me for the traffic. They say 'Hey - I could go down there and show you how to build that thing!' You get a lot of ribbing too." She was surprised but amused when friends bribed her with lunch in exchange for an inside job tour.

Of course, McCaffrey is not oblivious to the fact that she goes to work every day on what is widely acknowledged to be one of the biggest construction projects in the world, and she's not above having a bit of fun with it. With majestic understatement, she jotted the following on her WPI alumni update form: "Having fun building a tunnel in Boston. Enjoying work at Perini. Nothing too exciting."

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:51 EDT 1999