Monday, November 5, 2001

The Big Dig: Tunnel Vision


The American Prospect

Volume 12, Issue 19.November 5, 2001

Construction: Tunnel Vision

by Harvey Blume

 Boston's Big Dig, officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, is a massive, budget-busting effort to reshape the city's traffic infrastructure by the year 2005--without generating any more gridlock than Boston drivers are already resigned to. The basic idea is to replace the city's eyesore of an elevated highway with a multilane tunnel fit for twenty-first-century flow. The project also calls for a web of other tunnels, connectors, and bridges, and the reallocation of a considerable amount of public land. Its many engineering achievements--including, for example, four tunnels layered beneath South Station (a hub for trains, subway cars, and buses)--are well documented on the Big Dig's Web site, Costs for the undertaking--initially estimated at $2.6 billion, most of it in federal highway dollars--are today approaching $14.5 billion, a price tag that makes the Dig far and away the most expensive urban construction project in American history. Were anything on this scale attempted in New York City, there would be few places on earth immune to news of it. Being in Boston, the Dig is less well known than it might be, but no less spectacular.

The best way to dig the Dig might be to refer back to New York City's fin de siËcle engineering feat, the Brooklyn Bridge. When completed in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge on earth and New York's tallest structure; its towers, in a city still without skyscrapers, dwarfed everything in sight. The bridge replaced the ferry system of transport between Brooklyn and Manhattan, setting the stage for New York City's growth. The Dig, too, has a unifying function: When the central artery is demolished, Boston's waterfront and North End will be rejoined to the rest of town after 50 years of separation.