Fixing Boston’s Horrible Jams

Fear not, Beantown commuters, Big Brother is watching: How the Big Dig's high-tech brain dashes gridlock.
Courtesy Central Artery/Tunnel Project

It’s 8:30 a.m., late rush hour, and Jim Murphy has a multibillion-dollar set of new tunnels beneath downtown Boston at his fingertips. So far things have been quiet, but should traffic get gnarly, as it so often does in this city of six-hour gridlocks, his console will automatically display the problem areas. Then he’ll have some options: Zoom in on the jam through closed-circuit cameras; direct traffic with variable message boards; and, if things take a turn for the worse, override local radio frequencies.

Boston’s $14.6 billion Central Artery/Tunnel Project, now 87 percent complete after 12 years, is finally beginning to decongest the downtown. To keep things running smoothly, the operators here at the Backup Operations Center–the project’s interim brain until the larger Operations Control Center goes online in September–and Murphy, the OCC superintendent, monitor everything from traffic volume to tunnel air quality. But some things are out of their hands. A screen at the front of the room shows traffic slowing at the end of a northbound tunnel; drivers are hitting their brakes as they emerge. Why? “We ask ourselves that same question,” says Murphy. “There’s nothing impeding them. It’s just human nature.”


When the Central Artery/Tunnel Project is completed in December 2004, the task of managing its 7.5 miles of “smart” highways will fall on the shoulders of one facility: the Operations Control Center. Here’s how the Big Dig’s high-tech brain will keep traffic jams at bay.

1. Watching the road. Fifty-four color monitors display real-time images from any of 430 closed-circuit cameras located throughout the Central Artery/Tunnel. They flank a 13- by 46-foot rear-projection screen at the front of the room.

2. Rapid response. Nine workstations are arranged in two amphitheater rows. Each one contains two computer screens and six video monitors that automatically display the appropriate camera angles when an incident occurs.

3. Directing traffic. Touchscreen controls allow operators to communicate with
drivers through 130 electronic message boards, with 300 lane control signals, or
by overriding local AM and FM frequencies. They can also mobilize first-response teams and state police units from five 24-hour stations. These teams have specially equipped wreckers to fight small fires and to tow vehicles as large as freightliners.

4. Monitoring the air. Carbon monoxide sensors monitor levels of the gas inside tunnels and trigger ventilation fans if concentrations become dangerous.