Technical debt in the highway system

Last updated on July 18th, 2021 at 07:08 pm

The ghost ramps of highway I-695 in Somerville, Massachusetts
The ghost ramps of highway I-695 in Somerville, Massachusetts. Photo (cc) Nick Allen.

Interstate 695 was planned in 1955 as an “inner belt” circumferential route in Boston and adjacent towns. When cancelled in 1971, construction had already begun. The cancellation thus resulted in an incomplete implementation.

Newly constructed roads and mass transit now use the rights of way that were the original paths for I-695. Some never-used structures remain to this day, including a “ghost ramp” in Somerville that would have connected I-695 to I-93. Because this ramp is a mere stub that begins on an elevated stretch of I-93 and ends in mid-air, barriers across the stub entrance prevent accidental use. The ghost ramp constitutes technical debt because it’s an incomplete implementation. Google satellite view

For safety reasons, regular inspections, maintenance, and insurance are necessary for the ghost ramp. But it provides no utility and serves no civic purpose. Because the cost of retiring this technical debt—namely, demolition costs—would likely exceed the present value of the lifetime costs of inspection, maintenance, and insurance, the ghost ramp remains.

Sometimes, the best way to deal with technical debt is to leave it in place.

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