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InterviewsDavid Luberoff


Great Projects: The Building of America
David Luberoff

Interview with David Luberoff, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy and Associate Director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University, for Program Four: "The Big Dig"

Note: This transcript is from a videotaped interview for the "The Big Dig" segment of "Great Projects." It has been edited lightly for readability.

David Luberoff (DL): The Big Dig is trying to solve about three problems. The first is to improve transportation access to downtown Boston. So you have an existing highway in Boston that is well over capacity, terrible geometrics. The Big Dig fixes that. It makes downtown Boston more accessible. The second is it doubles the capacity of the highway system going to Logan Airport, which is the region's primary airport. And it's critical for cities like Boston to have good access to the airport and then to have a well-functioning airport for the kind of economy that we have. People need to be able to get to the airport. The third thing the Big Dig does is it's essentially an urban beautification project. So what you're doing is you're taking down this elevated, ugly highway that sort of rips through the city. And, if they do it right, you replace it with something that looks and feels a lot nicer for the city. So it makes downtown Boston a nicer place to work and then a nicer place to visit. The fourth thing it does is it opens up the old industrial waterfront in South Boston as a new locus for commercial development. So if downtown Boston is going to grow, it can't really grow where it is. It basically is full of skyscrapers with the exception of several parcels. The idea is that downtown Boston jumps across Fort Point Channel into the old warehouse district. And that becomes an area of new development. And you're already beginning to see that with the new federal courthouse and the new development that's just been permitted for some of the waterfront land there. So that's hopefully where growth will occur over the next twenty or thirty years in Boston. And then the last thing, like all big construction projects, it's a major source of jobs which, right now, isn't that important but as the economy moves in and out of recession can seem to be pretty important.

DL: When you go look at the project, it's an awesome project. I mean, there's that sense of any kid who ever played with a train set or a truck or in a sandbox. It's amazing at an engineering level, just an amazing technical feat [that] they've been able to pull this off.

DL: Depressing the artery is using some relatively new technologies that I don't think have been used to build underground highways, certainly not in the United States. They picked up some technologies that have been used in Europe. The idea of putting a major highway underground in the urban core is not a new idea. The idea of doing that while you left an existing highway operating on top of it while you did the work, is -- I think, nobody's ever done it of this magnitude certainly in the U.S. The folks with the project have this great saying, it's like doing open-heart surgery on somebody while they're playing tennis. And the existing highway continues to function and you drive on it. You have no idea what's going on a hundred yards below.

DL: This is a project that's gotten a lot of attention over the years. In part, because it's involved some great controversies and the press always likes a story that's got sort of a protagonist and an opponent and a big problem. It's clearly a major priority, for the public sector which is spending a lot of money on it; it's a major priority for significant players in the Boston economy who have focused a fair amount of attention on it. The biggest criticism right now is about the cost of the project. I mean, the project is costing substantially more than anybody had ever at least publicly stated that it would. There were previous criticisms at points about whether or not the project had as benign an environmental impact as its proponents claimed it would. So there were some great controversies in the late '80ss and early '90ss over both the general wisdom of the project from an environment standpoint and then some very specific elements of the project, most notably the way the project crosses over the Charles River. Whenever the cost rises, there's always a sort of press criticism about whether the project is being well managed or not, and whether or not they were completely up front about the magnitude of problems.

DL: This is a project, as you point out, that's gotten lots and lots of attention in the press. It's exciting; it's interesting. It has everything. I mean, it's got wonderful engineering so, you know, there's always an element that says, isn't this amazing. When it screws up, it screws up big time because [of] the magnitude of the project. So, you know, a design problem on the Central Artery is a five hundred million dollar or billion-dollar design problem -- and that's news. And, at points, it's made for great political drama. And again, the press has loved to write about that.

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