Boston's Dirty Secrets

The Mammoth Big Dig Highway Project Shortchanges Transit

Depending on who you ask, Boston's Big Dig, a mammoth undertaking designed to replace the city's aging central highway infrastructure with an eight-lane underground tunnel, is either one of the wonders of the known world or a colossal boondoggle, the biggest waste of $13.6 billion ever conceived. Not up for debate, however, is that the project has run massively over its original $2.5 billion budget, and is now so late that the last hard hat won't get removed until 2005, 14 years after the first spade went into the ground.

An aerial view of Boston's Central Artery Project, which runs the length of the city, including 7.8 miles of infrastructure. Will the Big Dig really solve Boston's daunting traffic problems?© Jim Motavalli

So big is the Big Dig that, according to Dick Bauer, a Greater Boston Legal Services attorney and bike enthusiast, “There's now no money in Massachusetts for any other transportation project.” This is the largest public works project in U.S. history.

There's no question that Boston-area commuters need some relief. The city's Central Artery, an elevated six-lane highway running right through the heart of the city, was built in 1959 and was basically obsolete before it was even completed. The highway, typical of neighborhood-destroying urban renewal projects of its era, cuts the city in two, isolates the waterfront, and mindlessly bypasses Logan Airport. The Big Dig is supposed to sort all that out with a tunnel to the airport, an underground highway with 30 acres of parkland above, five new interchanges and two new bridge crossings over the Charles River.

The press has been merciless about the Big Dig, daily bannering headlines about new corruption investigations, lawsuits, construction delays and cost overruns. The project was included in The Boston Phoenix's “Best of Boston” issue—as “Best Waste of Taxpayer Money.” Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI) awarded it the “Porker Award.” And Fred Salvucci, former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation and one of the project's central architects, derides it now as a “violation of environmental justice.” He bristles with vitriol as he points out that transit links have been cancelled, low-income neighborhoods have been violated by 50-foot ramps that were supposed to be underground, and park expansions have fallen by the wayside.

The state's own attorney general, Scott Harshbarger, teamed up with Boston's Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and sued every agency involved in the Big Dig for their failure to keep their promises about improving the city's bus and transit lines. Seth Kaplan, a CLF attorney, says the suit, now settled, demanded that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA), the project's overseer, live up to its commitments with upgrades to subway service, cleaner buses, improved ferry service and better park-and-ride facilities.

Last June an unnamed whistleblower also filed suit, charging that the project contained at least $10 million in “false claims.” According to Ron Killian, the MTA's manager of environmental permits and procedures, just to get the Big Dig approved the contractors had to make more than 2,000 individual commitments to get through the bureaucratic hurdle of 1,000 different permit actions.

Given all that, it's not surprising that Sean O'Neill, MTA's spokesman, was somewhat defensive when he led a tour for 12 interested Bostonians last summer. O'Neill, who calls himself a “professional spear catcher for the biggest show on Earth,” says, “There's a hulabaloo around this project because it's not happening in a field in Kansas, but instead right in the heart of an historic city.”