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Boston's Big Dig Awash in Troubles

In 1985, officials assigned a $2.5 billion price tag to the Big Dig. By the early 1990s, it had risen to $7.5 billion. It hit the $10 billion mark before 2000. To date, the Big Dig has cost $14.6 billion, an amount that edges higher with each leak.

"They just picked $2.5 billion to get it rolling -- everyone knew that was a lie," said a former state official who was involved in management of the Big Dig and who would not speak on the record because he expects to be questioned by investigators. "Every meeting with the engineers began with the phrase 'unforeseen circumstances.' "

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)

The federal government paid close to 90 percent of the first $6 billion for the Big Dig. Since then, Massachusetts officials have had to divert federal funds from other projects to pay for the tunnel.

Another problem, both Democratic and Republican officials here say, was that former Gov. William F. Weld (R) left too much oversight in the hands of private contractors. When Bechtel officials brought problems to the attention of his administration, the response often was: Go fix it.

"Bechtel of necessity had an enormously powerful role, and Weld abruptly removed three layers of oversight as the project got off the ground," said Fred Salvucci, a former top city and state official. "Weld appointed competent people, but he had an almost libertarian view of privatization and managing a public project."

State officials also ignored court-ordered deadlines for building new subway lines, which had been a condition for approving money for the Big Dig. "There was a lack of political will," said Philip Warburg, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, explaining that the new highways were supposed to be complemented by new subway lines connecting the city's neighborhoods.

All this said, few critics would declare that the Big Dig is a big, wet failure. Five thousand workers labored in dark tunnels; archaeologists, engineers and environmentalists hammered out complex protocols; traffic was rerouted, often on a weekly basis. Yet somehow the city acquired a potentially beautiful facelift without quite grinding to a halt.

"It's been described as doing a triple-bypass surgery while the patient's awake," said Michael Goldman, a radio talk show host here and a political consultant. "It was an amazing feat, as long as we don't end up having to swim to work."

As Goldman's words suggest, the tunnel offers a gold mine of jokes for Bostonians, whose humor often comes serrated. So you walk harborside in South Boston and ask white-haired Tommy Halloran and Bob Norton about the driving downtown, and their responses come rapid fire.

"Fella," Norton advised, "you better outfit your car with pontoons."

What about that harbor tunnel to Logan International Airport? Halloran shakes his head. "I'm not a nervous guy," he said, "but I recommend a wet suit and flippers."

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