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Boston’s Big Dig Shirks Prior Notions of State Spending on Transportation

October 24, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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In the final segment of a series investigating the health of the nation's infrastructure, Ray Suarez reports on Boston's Big Dig -- the most expensive single highway project in the U.S. that eventually cost more than $14.6 billion.

RAY SUAREZ: After decades of planning, building-related disruption, and billions of dollars spent, Boston’s famous — or infamous — Big Dig is being put to the test of the real world.

With the bridges and tunnels operational, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority reports dramatically improved travel times through downtown. And the pleasant public spaces of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where an elevated highway, known as the Central Artery, once blocked out the sky, demonstrate the remarkable physical transformation that’s taken place.

There used to be six lanes of choked expressway overhead. Now, there’s a modern interstate under my feet.

Across the decades, downtown Boston had adjusted to the existence of an elevated highway, basically by turning its back on it.

But since the completion of the Big Dig, builders, architects, and planners have started to reorient to this street, taking advantage of the open space and light, and reconnecting with Boston’s historic harbor. Balconies have sprouted, overlooking what was once an eyesore.

Former state Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci is sometimes known as the father of the Big Dig, for his tireless promotion of the project. He was an early backer of the radical plan to get rid of the chronically congested Central Artery by sending I-93 underground.

FREDERICK SALVUCCI, former Massachusetts secretary of transportation: I’m delighted that this ugly thing is down, and we’ve got a nice park here. But this project is about a lot more than the urban aesthetics; it’s about an economy that can grow in a sustainable way. And you’ve got to have the transit piece of it.

Project increases tourism

RAY SUAREZ: Boston's oldest neighborhood, the historic North End, has benefited economically and aesthetically. The area's flavor remains heavily influenced by the immigrants who turned it into the city's Little Italy.

For decades, the North End was hemmed in by the Central Artery. Outsiders were discouraged from entering by the dark and dirty spaces beneath what locals dubbed the Green Monster.

But with that Green Monster banished, the North End is a more welcoming place for the tourists, who come to see historic attractions, like the Paul Revere Mall.

NANCY CARUSO, North End community activist: The first thing we saw when they took it down was how bright Cross Street was. We actually had to go back inside and get our sunglasses.

RAY SUAREZ: For Nancy Caruso, who stood up for the neighborhood before, during, and after construction, the project has been a mixed blessing.

NANCY CARUSO: We are getting a tremendous influx of visitors, tourists, busloads. We are now jammed with humanity. Well, the neighborhood's changed to the point where we can't afford it. We can't afford to live here, not unless you own your building.

RAY SUAREZ: Boston's waterfront, which had also been trapped on the wrong side of the dreaded Central Artery, has also witnessed a renaissance.

The city also picked up a striking new landmark, in the form of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge over the Charles River, completed in 2002.

Remarkable engineering feats aside, the Big Dig will also be remembered for some of the problems that plagued the technically challenging project. They include widespread leaks and the death of an automobile passenger in a tunnel ceiling collapse in 2006. A lack of effective oversight is also on the long list of criticisms.

Light rail planned

Nor are the problems all in the past. There's the issue of unfulfilled promises.

Some nearby municipalities are still waiting for Massachusetts to deliver on mass transit commitments designed to mitigate the environmental impact of the Big Dig.

Nearly 20 years after committing to the northward expansion of the Green Line light rail, as part of a legal settlement over air quality, the state is moving ahead with those plans. That's considered long overdue in the densely populated city of Somerville, bordering Boston.

The region did what a lot of America did right after the war: It punched an expressway through Somerville and tore out its streetcar lines. That left this close-in suburb oddly isolated from the big city and yearning for a rail line.

ELLIN REISNER, president, Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership: Because people will get out of cars, we'll have less traffic, and it will reduce some of the local pollution that we have in the neighborhoods. The other thing that this will do is this will give us an opportunity to do some really important economic development.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet, for all it did and has yet to do for people in the Boston region, the Big Dig's lasting legacy may prove to be on the funding and management front.

Richard Dimino heads a nonprofit organization that worked with the business community in Boston to build support for the project.

Project expenses balloon

RICHARD DIMINO, president, A Better City: When we, unfortunately, had the newspapers expose to us that there was an over -- an $1 billion cost overrun, that had reverberations that went all the way to D.C. -- rightly so -- and a cap on federal funds on this project.

It didn't need to happen. That was a bad thing, so transparency is one of the lessons learned.

RAY SUAREZ: Originally estimated to cost less than $3 billion, the numbers have continued to rise. In July this year, the Boston Globe reported that, with interest, the debt had spiraled to $22 billion and wouldn't be paid until 2038.

Fred Salvucci is now a senior lecturer at MIT. He expresses frustration with the way the cost issue is often presented.

FREDERICK SALVUCCI: There's a myth out there that the rest of the country paid for these cost increases. The cost increases were unwarranted; the inflation was outrageous, caused by unwarranted delays.

The additional highway elements -- billions of dollars -- I think were unwise. But the money's spent, and now the bill has to be paid, and that bill is being paid by the people of Massachusetts, not by everyone else in America.

RAY SUAREZ: Salvucci says the Big Dig should be seen as a symbol of success, not wild spending. But in an era of shrinking tax revenues and conflicting spending priorities, the question is: Can taxpayers anywhere afford the bill?