Boston rectifying mistakes of the past with 'Big Dig' $10 billion superhighway in a tunnel to replace despised elevated artery

July 21, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOSTON -- Contrary to earlier fears, Boston hasn't closed. Motorists somehow navigate around barricaded streets to get within a few blocks of their destinations. Office workers manage to trudge through construction sites and get to their jobs on time. Tourists are arriving by the planeload.

And slowly, to a chorus of round-the-clock jackhammering, this old city is being patched together again. At a cost of $10 billion and enough aggravation and inconvenience to drive everyone crazy, the mistakes of the past are being rectified.

This is what Bostonians call the Big Dig: the most ambitious, expensive urban highway project in U.S. history, a 20-year scheme in which 9,000 workers are digging up the city and constructing the world's costliest highway -- at $1 billion a mile -- several stories down, replacing an elevated highway that is one of the eyesores of the East Coast.

Building a superhighway in a tunnel underneath a big city is expensive enough. Adding 50 percent to the cost was the decision to provide what is euphemistically called "mitigation" for everyone and every thing that could claim even the slightest inconvenience from the project.

The city says these expenses are intended to smooth over the rough spots caused by the construction. Critics regard them as bribes to win the support of those who otherwise would oppose the project.

In either event, "mitigation" covers a multitude of sins -- 1,270 of them, by last count. Expenses range from $450 million to provide temporary streets in business districts, to $1 million to triple-glaze the windows of the Harbor Towers high-rise and protect the condos from dust and noise.

The Big Dig will complete the last link of the interstate highway system, which crisscrosses the nation with 45,000 miles of superhighways. The system was begun in the 1950s, when America's romance with the car knew no limits and gas was 19 cents a gallon.

When the eight-lane, 7.5-mile underground highway with 14 on-ramps and off-ramps is finished in 2004 it will replace an elevated artery that slices through the city's heart and divides neighborhoods. Interstate 90 will then reach from Seattle to Boston's Logan Airport and I-93 from Vermont to Boston's southern suburbs.

The first phase of the project, the 1.6-mile Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor, was completed in December and eventually will be linked to the Massachusetts Turnpike. At the end, the despised Central Artery will come down.

Among the boulders, railroad ties, wooden water pipes, and sand and clay that are being excavated for the underground highway are relics from the distant past, including Colonial-era toys, clothing, glassware and a family journal that survived in an air-tight pit. Archaeologists say it is possible the excavation may zTC uncover remnants of the Grapes of Leaves Tavern, where the Boston Tea Party was planned.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena calls the Big Dig "a wonder of the world" and "a reflection of American ingenuity, American workmanship." In cost and magnitude, engineers say, the project surpasses the Hoover Dam and the Brooklyn Bridge.

To which Jean Loewenberg, who lives in the heart of the construction area, says: "All I can see ahead is 10 more years of aggravation. Let it be over."

How the Big Dig came to be speaks volumes about the decline of Eastern cities and America's relationship with the automobile. Ironically the project comes at a time when other cities are emphasizing not more highways but alternate forms of transportation, such as the subway system in Los Angeles. The Big Dig may well be the nation's last urban mega-project for cars.

When the elevated highway that the Big Dig is replacing was built in the early 1950s, Boston was perceived as a dying city, its population and tax base drained by a flight to suburbia, its economic vitality sapped by cutbacks at the Charlestown and Quincy Navy yards.

To bring people back into the inner city, Boston sold its residents on a plan: It would build an elevated expressway over downtown, with lots of on-ramps and off-ramps, and paint it green so that it would "blend" with the trees.

"In retrospect it was a pretty horrible decision to build the Central Artery," said Fred Salvucci, Massachusetts' former transportation secretary. "It was incredibly ugly, and all kinds of homes had to be knocked down to make room for it. Once people saw it in three dimensions, they said, 'Oh my God, is that what they're doing?' "

The Big Dig represents a remarkable change in urban thinking from the knock-down-the-houses, make-way-for-the-cars philosophy reflected in the elevated artery. The result of 20 years of social, political and engineering planning, it is designed to raze not a single home and to displace not a single person.

Neighborhood activists have had nearly as much to say about the final shape of the project as structural engineers. Twelve liaison officers cultivate a channel of communication between the neighborhoods and the project's 2,000-person bureaucracy.

The Big Dig was no easy sell, either in the neighborhoods or in Congress. Salvucci, who teaches transportation studies at MIT, spent years going home to home to preach the project's merits.

He also listened. He redrew interchanges and ramps and parks in response to citizen complaints, and eventually he won the people's trust and sewed together the political coalition needed to get the Big Dig started.

President Ronald Reagan vetoed in 1987 the transportation bill containing funds for the project -- 85 percent of the Big Dig's funds are federal -- but Boston's Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, then the House speaker, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy led the successful campaign to override the veto.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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