Big Dig Ready to Swallow more Taxpayer Money

As investigators continue to find trouble spots in Boston's Big Dig highway project, concern is growing among taxpayers over who will pay to fix the problems. Gov. Mitt Romney (R) says he is appealing for federal assistance. But Congress voted years ago to cap federal contributions to the costly project.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In Boston, a Big Dig tunnel that was closed yesterday has reopened to limited traffic after crews installed a temporary brace to hold up concrete ceiling tiles that apparently were slipping. Other roads remain closed, including the tunnel where a three-ton ceiling panel fell and killed a woman in a passing car last week. Investigators say it may be months before the Big Dig is repaired, and concern is growing among taxpayers over who will pay for the work.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH reporting:

Officials are a long way from knowing what it will cost to fix the Big Dig; they're still trying to figure out just how much of it is broke. But after 20 years watching the Big Dig's big costs get bigger and bigger, Massachusetts taxpayers like 54-year-old Michael Morashian(ph) and 37-year-old Robin Tweedy(ph) fear the worst.

Mr. MICHAEL MORASHIAN: People are expecting to get ripped off in one way or another around here, you know, and look at the price we're paying now.

Ms. ROBIN TWEEDY: I mean, it's a classic case of the people who didn't make the mistake having to foot the bill once again. It seems like it happens a lot here. It's totally unfair.

SMITH: Both state and federal authorities are vowing to go after any contractors, engineers or architects who may be responsible. But Massachusetts does not have a good track record of trying to recoup money for past Big Dig problems like faulty walls and water leaks. And Mike Widmer, from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, says any money Massachusetts gets from litigation may be too little, too late.

Mr. MICHAEL WIDMER (President, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation): I think it will drag on for years. And in the end the state may get something, but we will long since have had to put the money up front, so to speak, to pay for these repairs.

SMITH: Governor Mitt Romney has already allotted $20 million from the state's rainy-day fund and he says the agency overseeing the Big Dig also has some contingency funds that will help.

But given mounting costs and lost revenues to business and tourism, the Republican governor says it may not be enough and he's also reaching out to the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

Governor MITT ROMNEY (Governor of Massachusetts): I'd be embarrassed if I didn't always ask for federal money whenever I get a chance. I didn't have a figure for them but they knew I'd be coming if the opportunity arises.

Mr. LESTER FURSTENBERGER(ph): I think the taxpayers of the United States of America have helped out enough already. Then - not another penny should come out of my pocket or the taxpayers in Ohio or anywhere else. Enough's enough.

SMITH: New Hampshire resident, Lester Furstenberger, on a visit to Boston, is one of many out-of-staters here feeling less than charitable about the Big Dig.

Mr. FURSTENBERGER: (Unintelligible) you have $15 billion for what's essentially a municipal works project is exorbitant and Massachusetts needs to fix itself, take care of it on its own.

SMITH: Washington will probably be equally unsympathetic. When the Big Dig started, Congress committed to funding the bulk of what was supposed to be a two and a half billion dollar project. But as costs soared, the feds got fed up. And after Washington's contribution hit eight and a half billion dollars, Congress shut the spigot. And now, Massachusetts Congressman Mike Capuano, a Democrat, says it's probably shut for good.

Representative MICHAEL CAPUANO (Democrat, Massachusetts): The truth is, the last thing I want to be doing is asking for additional money for anything related to the Big Dig. For several years now I've been asking people to stop putting the word big and dig in the same sentence.

SMITH: Capuano says he's looking into whether federal officials bear any responsibility for mistakes they may have signed off on. But regardless of blame, Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank says the federal government still ought to help.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): I believe in a federal government that puts resources in times of emergencies where people need them. So I have no problem in asking people to help us in Massachusetts. I will do that. I think that's justified. Why would it be fair for the federal government to help out New Orleans and not us? I mean, I didn't cause a hurricane. You know, that's what it means to be part of a federal government. You help each other out.

SMITH: But even Frank concedes help for the Big Dig will be a hard sell. And David Luberoff, an expert in urban public investment at Harvard's Kennedy School, says Massachusetts may end up paying for Big Dig repairs with money meant for other highway jobs.

Mr. DAVID LUBEROFF (Associate Director, A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government): It's somewhat similar to a homeowner who's planning a kitchen renovation and discovers that they've got a serious roof leak.

They may wind up delaying the kitchen renovation because they've got to fix the roof immediately. They may borrow a little bit more money so they can do both, but it will require some hard choices at the margin.

SMITH: Ultimately, Luberoff says, the failure of the Big Dig may also cost other cities support for their projects. Officials from Seattle to New York, he says, can expect a harder time now winning trust and support for their new tunnels and bridges.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.