Cleaning Up from Boston's 'Big Dig'

Boston's "Big Dig" is officially complete! Nicole Gelinas, a contributing editor to City Journal, talks about the lessons learned from a highway project for the ages.

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(Soundbite of song "MTA")

THE KINGSTON TRIO (Group Singer): (Singing) Well, did he ever return, no he never returned. And his fate is still unlearned.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) He may ride forever.

THE KINGSTON TRIO: (Singing) He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston. He's the man who never returned.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Pick it, Davey.

JOHN FUGELSANG, host:

Well, after decades of work and billions upon billions of dollars, there is something else buried underneath the streets of Boston. That would be the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, although you may know it by its nickname, the Big Dig.

Now, have you ever heard about the Big Dig?

ALISON STEWART, host:

Oh, I've been intimately acquainted with the Big Dig as many people have. It's been…

FUGELSANG: One of the most…

STEWART: …going on for a while.

FUGELSANG: One of the most complex, one of the most expensive construction projects in human history. And in what Bostonians might consider a small miracle, it is finally coming to an end on December 31st.

This infrastructure project was supposed to take about 10 years, took more than 20, supposed to cost about $3 billion, wound up costing more than 16 billion. It resulted in charges of fraud, abuse, waste, criminal arrests, the deaths of three workers and a motorist. But the Big Dig has also revolutionized one of America's oldest cities. The residents say it's amazing. It's cut traffic. It's cut down pollution, and it's given the city a brand new architectural landmark, the Leonard Zakim Memorial Bunker Hill Bridge.

It's replaced a rusting, decrepit elevated highway that we all know of that slice through Boston for years with a new underground tunnel over 160 miles of underground separate lanes with a grassy park above it. It's made easier to get to the airport and it's reconnected the city's downtown with its historic harbor.

So after all these ups and downs, what have we learned? Joining us now in the studio is Nicole Gelinas. Nicole is a contributing editor to City Journal and she wrote a piece for the autumn issue entitled "Lessons of Boston's Big Dig."

Hi, Nicole.

Ms. NICOLE GELINAS (Contributing Editor, City Journal): Hi, thank you.

FUGELSANG: Thank you. That's a lot of back story I just gave there. But for a lot of people, the only thing they've heard about this project is how much it cost and how long it took. Those issues aside for a second, why is the Big Dig such a big deal?

Ms. GELINAS: Well, one of the main reasons why it's such a big deal is that it does seem to belong to a different era. These types of massive complex infrastructure projects were not uncommon in the beginning of the last century. We built all of New York City subways a hundred years ago. Boston built its subways a hundred years ago. People were not afraid to think big and making the physical infrastructure of their cities in the early part of the 20th century.

But by the 1970s when Massachusetts planned or started to thinking of what would become the Big Dig, this was unusual. People weren't thinking big in terms of physical infrastructure anymore, and particularly, in older urban cities - New York, Boston, Philadelphia. These cities felt like they were stuck with the infrastructure they had. And here, we had one of these older urban cities that said, we are not happy with this elevated highway. It was unsafe. We are not happy with the infrastructure of the city and we're going to audaciously completely remake that infrastructure, and essentially, make a new downtown Boston.

And this was very unusual for this era. And it really, unfortunately, hasn't been repeated. People learned the wrong lessons from the Big Dig that we shouldn't do these ambitious projects.

FUGELSANG: Well, the elevated highway was first begun in the 1920s. It was an eyesore for decades. Bostonians hated it. In the late '70s, we began planning this operation. Is it true that Michael Dukakis was one of the architects behind it?

Ms. GELINAS: Yes. And Michael Dukakis was the governor and he appointed a man called - named Fred Salvucci, and Mr. Salvucci was the transportation secretary for Massachusetts under Dukakis. He is known as the father of the Big Dig. And it's very interesting because when he was a very young, he was a student at MIT. The state highway department sent a letter to his elderly grandmother and essentially kicked her out of her home to build one of these elevated highways.

And he saw, firsthand, the terrible effects just bulldozing entire neighborhoods, putting these highways right through residential, commercial neighborhoods, scarring these neighborhoods had. And he said, we want to improve Boston's highway infrastructure, but we do not want to take anybody out of their homes.

And that's exactly what he did. He designed this project so that not one homeowner was displaced. And actually, it's greatly improved Boston's downtown infrastructure. The - almost the buildings that were along the elevated highway during the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, those property values were much lower than they would have been otherwise because nobody wanted to be around that noise, dirty pollution.

And today, as soon as these property owners realized that the project was beyond the point of no return, the property value started going up. People started investing in those older buildings. And they started putting the windows back on that side of the building that they had boarded up because there was no highway there.

FUGELSANG: Because the highway was such an eyesore, yeah.

Ms. GELINAS: Right, exactly. They could see the harbor once again, something they hadn't seen for decades.

FUGELSANG: Well, the plan was (unintelligible) to satisfy residents providing soundproofing, providing mattresses and making sure that everybody was happy. In fact, it's really a triumph of government working with big business to reach out to many interest groups to make sure that everybody was on the same page before they began the construction, which seems like the real victory of the story.

Ms. GELINAS: Yes. And that's another reason why the project costs so much. You know, projects that people like Robert Moses, particularly, in New York City, they may have common on budget, they may have been very cost-controlled. But people suffered because of that. This was a project where cost estimates went out. And then when the public saw some of these plans, for example, you mentioned the Zakim Bridge, the first plan with a $3-billion cost estimate, the bridge would have been a very ugly, functional, unattractive bridge. And the people said, wait a minute, these drawings don't look good, and they went back and spent three years redesigning this. It cost another $1.5 billion more than they had budgeted for this.

But now, they have a beautiful entryway into Boston. So most people would argue that it was worth the extra cost, even though, that's one of the major cost overruns that ended up later being part of people's complaints when you say it goes billions of dollars over budget. It's all of these things - sound-proofing the walls, everything they had to do to make people happy as they got the project going.

FUGELSANG: Right. Right. Well, Nicole, it was a joke for many years, but, I guess, Bostonians are having the last laugh because it's a big success. Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to City Journal. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. GELINAS: Thank you.

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