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Boston's Big Dig Awash in Troubles

Leaks, Cost Overruns Plague Project

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page A03

BOSTON -- Boston's Big Dig has sprung a big leak.

Twenty years and $14.6 billion after its conception, the most ambitious public works project in the nation -- an unprecedented effort to route an unsightly highway deep beneath the central city and replace it with a green ribbon of parks -- is dogged by reports of a thousand leaks, cost overruns and faulty waterproofing materials.


Cars pass a flooded area of the northbound lanes of the Boston tunnel known as the Big Dig. Many leaks have developed in the tunnel. (Evan Richman -- Boston Globe)

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has said he was "shocked" by the revelations and asked for resignations at the Turnpike Authority, which oversees the project. The state attorney general has opened an investigation. And U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime critic of the project, has talked about holding a hearing in Washington next week before the Commerce Committee, which he chairs.

The Big Dig's leak problem came to light Sept. 15, when homeward-bound commuters driving deep -- 110 feet down -- in the new northbound tunnel saw an unsettling sight. Saltwater was gushing through a crack in the wall.

"They said millions of gallons were pouring out of that hole," said Eileen Hanley, a schoolteacher who was stuck in the tunnel that night. "I don't like the M-word when I'm stuck in a tunnel."

Work crews trooped in and repaired the hole. But in the weeks since, the Boston Globe has run a series of investigative reports noting that the 95 percent-completed tunnels are plagued by as many as 1,000 leaks and that the waterproofing provided "insufficient protection," according to a 2001 audit report. Engineers with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project managers, knew of these problems for seven years, according to the audit mentioned in the Globe.

A Bechtel spokesman, Andrew Paven, noted this week that the project is still under construction. Once the above-ground pillars are removed and holes are sealed, he said, the completed tunnel will spring far fewer leaks. Designers projected that the tunnel's drainage system would handle 500,000 gallons of leaking water per year.

Since last December, however, 26 million gallons of leaking water has flowed through the drainage systems.

"Everyone put up with the spiraling costs because they could tell themselves that technologically the tunnel was built right and it was great for the city," said David Luberoff, executive director of Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and a supporter of the project. "But the leaks are unfortunate because it confirms people's worst fears about public projects."

News reports of the leaks have transfixed Bostonians these past few weeks, not least because the Big Dig has dominated the physical city for more than two decades. It is Boston's own municipal ziggurat, a project so grand that it promises to transform what was the staidest of American cities.

Between the turn of the previous century and 1950, Boston changed barely a whit. A single skyscraper pierced its skyline, and few public works projects went forward. Boston was caught between Yankee Brahmin bankers and an Irish Catholic political class, whose distrust of each other was bred in the bone. "Boston had a reputation as a place where public money was 'lost, strayed or stolen,' " said Thomas H. O'Connor, Boston College's university historian. "Not much came our way."

With the end of World War II, Boston faced a choice: It could slip into genteel obsolescence or reinvent itself. Its leaders chose the latter. They set aside grievances and built an elevated highway and tossed up a dozen skyscrapers.

By the 1970s, Boston was slumping again, leaking jobs and cachet. The Brookings Institution examined the future of American cities and ranked Trenton, N.J., ahead of Boston.

Time for Act 3: The Big Dig. As Mayor Kevin White (D) and Gov. Francis W. Sargent (R) conceived it, tearing down the elevated highway would knit together neighborhoods -- the highway stood as a wall separating the Italian North End and the waterfront from the rest of the city. The old highway route would become a 26-acre park, and officials would pour billions more dollars into revitalizing the subway system.


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