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U.S. looks for lessons in Boston's "Big Dig"
July 12, 2007 / 12:48 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. looks for lessons in Boston's "Big Dig"

BOSTON (Reuters) - From his store in Boston’s Italian North End, John DiPaolo watches as workers plant trees in a park that, when complete, will mark the end of the $15 billion “Big Dig” road and tunnel construction project.

Reporters stand near a portion of ceiling which collapsed inside the Big Dig tunnel, part of Interstate 90, killing a woman in South Boston, July 11, 2006. From his store in Boston's Italian North End, John DiPaolo watches as workers plant trees in a park that, when complete, will mark the end of the $15 billion "Big Dig" road and tunnel construction project. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

“It was a waste of time and money,” said DiPaolo, 56, standing behind the counter of D&G Meat Market on a street next to Boston’s 15-year project. “The costs keep rising and instead of a park I’d rather see homes there.”

DiPaolo’s view reflects the conflicted emotions in Boston toward the costliest public works project in U.S. history a year after cement fell from a tunnel ceiling, crushing a car, killing a woman passenger and shattering public confidence.

Some, like DiPaolo, question the merits of an urban engineering project compared in scale to the building of the Panama Canal, while others extol the benefits of a swifter commute through a notoriously congested city and the sprouting of trees and plants where a rusting highway once stood.

With 7.5 miles of underground highway and a 183-foot (56-metre) wide cable-stayed bridge, the “Big Dig” replaced an ailing elevated expressway to fix chronic congestion and reunite downtown Boston with its historic waterfront neighborhoods.

Despite a “stem to stern” inspection last year that found it fundamentally safe, many Bostonians still regard it with trepidation, citing years of mismanagement of the kind highlighted on Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board in its review of last year’s fatality.

The U.S. transportation investigator blamed the collapse on the wrong kind of glue used to hold up the concrete ceiling, and criticized the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority for poor oversight and noted mistakes by contractors including private U.S. ceiling designer Gannett Fleming Inc.

The problems reverberate beyond Boston to other U.S. cities considering so-called “mega-projects” that involve the tearing down of aging elevated highways built in a construction boom of the 1950s and 1960s to channel growing traffic underground and free up land for parks or other facilities.

PROJECTS IN OTHER CITIES

“People look at the Big Dig and it makes them more skeptical, and therefore they ask harder questions -- whether it’s on the cost side or the management side,” said David Luberoff, a Harvard researcher and co-author of “Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment.”

“The Big Dig underscores what happens if you don’t get it right. Hopefully, people will learn from this,” said Luberoff.

Seattle is struggling to convince voters that replacing the earthquake-vulnerable Alaska Way Viaduct on its waterfront with a $3 billion to $3.6 billion tunnel is worth the cost.

Brooklyn, whose waterfront could be transformed if an elevated expressway were buried, faces a similar problem.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is conducting a criminal investigation of last year’s accident that killed a 38-year-old woman and could decide soon whether to seek indictments. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has urged her “to hold accountable all those who should be held accountable.”

Still, many Bostonians praise the Big Dig while grumbling about its execution.

About 260 acres of new parks, trees and sidewalks were freed by it. It also cut the average peak travel time on northbound Interstate 93 by 17 minutes to about 3 minutes after major road construction ended last year, according to a Massachusetts Turnpike Authority study.

And it has been a tourism boon to the North End, a dense district of restaurants, cafes and historic buildings bordering the area where the highway once stood and where landscapers are finishing two grassy parks set to open by October that represent the project’s final phase.

“It’s been great both in bringing more people to the North End and, at the same time, changing people’s perceptions of this historic part of the city. It has reconnected the North End back to Boston,” said Guild Nichols, a longtime North End resident who runs www.northendboston.com.

Dan McNichol, author of “The Roads that Built America,” said cities that could benefit from a Big Dig-style underground highway include Philadelphia, where an elevated section of Interstate 95 divides the city from the Delaware River, and St. Louis, where Interstate 70 runs along the Mississippi River.

But legal skirmishes over the project look set to linger. The family of the woman killed last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Turnpike Authority and several companies associated with the project, including project manager Bechtel/ Parsons Brinckerhoff, which have said they stand behind their work.

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