Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig by Nicole Gelinas, City Journal Autumn 2007 SEA RCH SITE
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Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig
America’s most ambitious infrastructure project inspired engineering marvels—and colossal mismanagement.
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must spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually to preserve the nation’s infrastructure—the backbone of its private-sector economy—and yet more to build the next generation of roads, bridges, tunnels, and dams. Spending so much money wisely is daunting. The good news: no matter how complex and expensive any future project is, it’s unlikely to be more so than the Big Dig, Massachusetts’s three-decade-long quest to bury and expand the Central Artery, Boston’s major interstate highway, and carve out a new underwater tunnel to Logan Airport. Conceived in the 1970s and finished, more or less, in 2005, the Big Dig is modern America’s most ambitious urban-infrastructure project, spanning six presidents and seven governors, costing $14.8 billion, and featuring many never-before-done engineering and construction marvels. Long before construction peaked around the turn of the millennium, eating up $100 million a month for three years, the Big Dig was a local legend, spawning dozens of jokes. (Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise Boston than to bury the highway? Congressman Barney Frank asked.) Later, when fewer people viewed the Dig whimsically, it was the setting of a 2002 murder-mystery novel. And last year, after falling concrete panels in a Big Dig tunnel that had been open for three years killed a 38-year-old car passenger, the project became a reminder that infrastructure failure can exact a cruel price. Every major decision that could conceivably be made on an infrastructure project was made on the Big Dig, from how to pay for it to how to forge the public and political support for it to how to manage its construction and maintenance. Its stewards have encountered every imaginable public-infrastructure pitfall, and fallen into many. The Big Dig’s story is an invaluable lesson: How can America invest in infrastructure—and do it smart?
T he reasons for the Big Dig date back nearly 80 years. In 1930, a city planning board noted that Boston’s “street system should be adapted to the requirements of the motor age” and proposed an elevated expressway. The Central Artery’s first planners acknowledged that “the erection of . . . elevated structures . . . in downtown Boston” would hurt some residents’ quality of life. But a “vehicular subway”—the first mention of the idea that, half a century www.city-journal.org/html/17_4_big_dig.html 1/11
Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig by Nicole Gelinas, City Journal Autumn 2007
later, would become the Big Dig—“would interfere with sewers and with . . . rapid transit subways.” The state and city had the luxury of deciding to build an elevated highway because bottom-up, Jane Jacobs–inspired urban coalitions didn’t exist yet to thwart the era’s top-down, Robert Moses–style urban planners. The Great Depression and...