Arduous $15 Billion Big Dig Completed The most expensive public works project in the history of the United States is coming to an end. The project, estimated at $2.6 billion ended up costing more than six times that. We look back on what went wrong and right.
NPR logo

Arduous $15 Billion Big Dig Completed

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Arduous $15 Billion Big Dig Completed

Arduous $15 Billion Big Dig Completed

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


In the city of Boston, the end of 2007 marks the official completion of the so-called Big Dig - the nation's largest and most expensive public works project ever. The ambitious highway and tunnel construction scheme became infamous for delays and cost overruns while prompting civil and criminal lawsuits.

NPR's Anthony Brooks has more.

ANTHONY BROOKS: Frederick Salvucci has waited more than three decades for this day. Back in the 1970s when he was the state secretary of transportation, Salvucci began dreaming of a plan to repair Boston.

Professor FREDERICK SALVUCCI (MIT Professor; Former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary): For over half a century, we had this big, ugly thing in the middle of the city.

BROOKS: That big, ugly thing was an elevated highway built in the 1950s that cut right through the middle of Boston. It was a confusion of traffic and green steeled girders, ramps and dark shadows that cut the city in half.

Now, the highway is underground. The ugly girders replaced by pedestrian walkways and trees and many of Boston's oldest roads like Hanover Street where Salvucci stands have been restored with open space and sunlight.

Prof. SALVUCCI: This is the oldest path in the city that many Americans used to come down to the sea to gather shells in the summertime. So this is a path that you can walk on for the first time in over 50 years, allowing the city to grow back and heal or it would have been a huge insult in the city fabric.

BROOKS: The project built a maze of underground roads, ramps, tunnels and bridges, all while a busy city continue to function.

Jeffrey Mullin(ph), undersecretary with the state Department of Transportation, says the Big Dig was first and foremost a dazzling engineering feat.

Mr. JEFFREY MULLIN (Undersecretary, State Department of Transportation): Peter Zuk, who was the project director for several years, described it as having open heart surgery on a patient while the patient was playing tennis.

BROOKS: But the Big Dig was also a long series of big problems. Construction began in 1991 and was supposed to be finished by 2000 and cost $6 billion. Instead, it took seven extra years and cost almost $15 billion, much of it federal highway money. Major setbacks included a series of leaks that caused water to gush in to one of the tunnels and shut it down.

Then last year, a concrete ceiling panel collapsed and killed a women as she drove to the airport with her husband.

Mr. MICHAEL DUKAKIS (Former Governor, Massachusetts): This was just a badly managed project, and unfortunately, it cost us twice what it should have cost, and it took twice as long as it should have taken.

BROOKS: That's former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. As governor, Dukakis pushed for the project, though, construction began after he left office. But despite the delays, cost overruns and fatal design flaws, Dukakis says the Big Dig was a good idea.

Mr. DUKAKIS: I'll tell you what we should be thinking and that is that somehow we are capable of doing these kinds of projects because we've got a lot of work to do in this country. Our infrastructure is falling apart. And we shouldn't be afraid of these kinds of projects because this one happened to be screwed up.

State Senator STEVEN BADDOUR (Democrat, Massachusetts): This is an example of a massive breach of oversight by both the state and federal government and sort of everyone in between.

BROOKS: Steven Baddour is a state senator and frequent critic of Big Dig management. He says the big mistake was to cede too much oversight authority to the contractor, Bechtel-Parsons Brinckerhoff.

State Sen. BADDOUR: The biggest lesson that needs to be taken from the Big Dig as we move forward across the country with big mega projects is that you need to have independent oversight. In essence with the Big Dig, you had Bechtel-Parson Brinckerhoff, in essence being the fox guarding the hen house. They were responsible for themselves.

BROOKS: In response to such criticism, Bechtel-Parson Brinckerhoff has defended its engineering, construction and quality assurance as robust.

Now with the nation's largest and costliest highway project basically complete, what remains is a series of civil and criminal suits, including an effort by the state's attorney general to recover some costs from the contractors.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Back on Hanover Street, Frederick Salvucci, the original Big Dig proponent, says even with its checkered legacy, the project has improved the city.

Prof. SALVUCCI: When you try to put it in context, I think this is an investment that's going to be paying off as the city rebuilds itself around what used to be a massive scar.

BROOKS: And traffic flow has improved through a once congested city center. But Salvucci warns, without a commitment to improve public transportation, gridlock will return and the benefits of the Big Dig will be only temporary.

Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.