BOSTON (Reuters) - Boston's $15 billion "Big Dig" was meant to inspire awe, an engineering marvel on scale with the Panama Canal that would thrust U.S. cities into a new era. Instead, it faces a crisis of public confidence after a fatal tunnel collapse that could derail plans for other U.S. urban mega-projects.
With 7.5 miles of underground highway and a 183-foot (56 meter) 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.
But cost overruns, leaks, delays, falling debris, criminal probes and charges of corruption plague the nearly completed 15-year project, giving ammunition to opponents of similar plans in other cities considering tearing down aging elevated highways built in a construction boom in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now, with motorists afraid to travel through Big Dig after a woman was killed last week by falling cement, those skeptics have their most persuasive case yet.
"When things leak and certainly when things fall down that aren't suppose to, clearly that undermines people's confidence in government's ability to deliver," said David Luberoff, a Harvard researcher and co-author of "Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment."
Seattle, he said, will struggle to convince voters that replacing the earthquake-damaged 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.
"The risks of building an urban tunnel are huge," said Cary Moon, a director at People's Waterfront Coalition, a Seattle-based organization that wants to prevent construction of a new highway on Seattle's waterfront.
"Given the very limited use our highways have relative to highways in Boston, it's just preposterous to think taking that risk and expense is necessary," he said.
Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, an advocate for building a tunnel, chafes at comparisons between Seattle's tunnel proposal and the Big Dig.
"It's a straightforward tunnel project. We are also not under any structures like there were in Boston," she said.
Luberoff doubts the Big Dig would have been built at all if the full costs were known at the start, and he reckons few U.S. cities will attempt such a grand project after Boston.
Burying the highway was originally estimated to cost $360 million in the 1970s. That ballooned to $2.5 billion in the 1980s, or $4 billion in today's dollars when factoring in inflation -- meaning the real costs quadrupled.
"The project has been like a nightmare," said former state Inspector General Robert Cerasoli, whose December 1998 report found widespread safety flaws in the project's Ted Williams Tunnel similar to those suspected in last week's collapse.
"Those problems are still sitting there," he said.
Still, many Bostonians praise the Big Dig while grumbling about its execution. About 260 acres of new parks, trees and sidewalks have been freed by it. The drive through Boston is faster than ever. Tourism has been given a boost.
"Every city would love to do it and almost every city could make a case for it," said Dan McNichol, author of "The Roads that Built America."
McNichol said other cities that could benefit from a Big Dig-style underground highway system 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.
(Additional reporting by Daisuke Wakabayashi in Seattle)
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
The years of Big Dig propaganda are coming home to roost. The Big Dig fiasco is getting ugly. It's a sledge-hammer to our collective credibility. We're not so smart in the Athens of America.