By Steve LeBlanc
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
BOSTON -- When the clock runs out on 2007, Boston will quietly mark the end of one of the most tumultuous eras in the city's history: The Big Dig, the nation's most complex and costliest highway project, will officially come to an end.
Don't expect any champagne toasts.
After a history marked by engineering triumphs, as well as tunnel leaks, epic traffic jams, last year's death of a motorist crushed by concrete ceiling panels and a price tag that soared from $2.6 billion to a staggering $14.8 billion, there's little appetite for celebration.
Civil and criminal cases stemming from the July 2006 tunnel ceiling collapse continue, though on Monday the family of Milena Del Valle announced a $6 million settlement with Powers Fasteners, the company that manufactured the epoxy blamed by investigators for the accident. Lawsuits are pending against other Big Dig contractors, and Powers Fasteners still faces a manslaughter indictment.
Dec. 31 marks the official end of the joint venture that teamed megaproject contractor Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to build the dizzying array of underground highways, bridges, ramps and a new tunnel under Boston Harbor -- all while the city remained open for business. Construction started in 1991.
The project was so complex, it has been likened to performing open-heart surgery on a wide-awake patient.
Some Boston residents didn't know if they would live to see it end.
Enza Merola had a front-row seat on the reconstruction from the front window of her pastry shop in Boston's North End.
During the toughest days of the project, the facade of Marie's Pastry Shop, named after Merola's sister, was obscured from view. The only way customers could find the front door was along a treacherous path through heavy construction.
"For a while, we thought we weren't going to make it," Merola said. "But you know, we hung in there."
The Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project -- as the Big Dig is officially known -- has its roots in the construction of the hulking, 1950s-era elevated Central Artery, which cut a swath through the center of Boston, separating the waterfront from downtown and casting a shadow over some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.
Almost as soon as the ribbon was cut on the elevated highway in 1959, many were already wishing it away.
One was Frederick Salvucci, a city kid for whom the demolition of the old Central Artery became a lifelong quest.
"It was always a beautiful city, but it had this ugly scar through it," said Salvucci, state transportation secretary during the project's planning stages.
Rather than build a new elevated highway, Salvucci and others pushed a far more radical solution: burying it.
Easier said than done.
Those who would build the Big Dig would have to undertake the massive project in the cramped confines of Boston's narrow, winding streets, some dating to pre-Colonial days.
Of all the project's Rubik's Cube-like engineering challenges, none was more daunting than the first -- how to build a wider tunnel directly underneath a narrower existing elevated highway while preventing the overhead highway from collapsing.
To solve the problem, engineers created horizontal braces as wide as the new tunnel, then cut away the elevated highway's original metal struts and gently lowered them onto the braces -- even as cars crawled along overhead, their drivers oblivious to the work below.
It was just one of what would be referred to as the Big Dig's "engineering marvels."
The Big Dig's long history is also littered with wrong turns: some unavoidable, others self-inflicted.
One of the biggest occurred in 2004 when water started pouring through a wall of the recently opened Interstate 93 tunnel under downtown Boston. An investigation found that the leak was caused by a failure to clear debris that became caught in the concrete in the wall during construction. Hundreds of smaller drips, most near the ceiling, were also found.
Some delays were unrelated to construction.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, the project's signature element, went through dozens of revisions as designers labored to come up with the most practical and elegant way to cross the Charles River.
But the project's darkest day came near the end of construction in 2006, when suspended concrete ceiling panels in a tunnel leading to Logan Airport collapsed, killing Del Valle, 39, a passenger in a car driven by her husband.
The tunnel was shut down for months as each of the remaining panels was inspected and a new fastening system installed. A federal investigation blamed the use of the wrong kind of epoxy, and the Massachusetts attorney general indicted the epoxy's manufacturer.
Four workers also were killed working on the project. During peak construction, more than 5,000 workers labored daily on it.
The project's escalating budget also became an unwanted part of its legacy.
In 2000, Big Dig head James Kerasiotes resigned after failing to disclose $1.4 billion in overruns. A frustrated Congress capped the federal contribution.
"It never should have taken so long. It never should have been so expensive," said former governor Michael Dukakis (D), who left office just as major construction was to begin.
For those who grew up with the noise and clutter of the old Central Artery, the transformation of downtown Boston is still a wonder to behold.
The dark parking lots under the old elevated highway have been replaced by parks, dubbed the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway after the mother of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D), who grew up in the North End. Buildings that turned their backs to the old Central Artery are finding ways to open their doors to the parkway.
Mayor Thomas Menino, who presided over the city during most of the construction, said that, for the first time in half a century, residents can walk from City Hall to the waterfront without trudging under a major highway.
"When I came into office in 1993, people said, 'Your city isn't going to survive,' " he said. "Now we have a beautiful open space in the heart of the city. It knits the downtown with the waterfront. All those dire predictions by the experts didn't come true."
Drivers also give the Big Dig a big thumbs up.
A study by the Turnpike Authority found that the Big Dig cut the average trip through Boston from 19.5 minutes to 2.8 minutes.
"Before, we drive bumper to bumper, but now they are moving very well," said Gamal Ahmed, 38, who has been driving a cab in Boston for seven years. "Sometimes we are stuck, but not like before."
For Salvucci, who warns that gridlock could soon return without a major commitment to public transportation, the Big Dig -- for all its whiz-bang engineering -- was always second to the city itself.
"The Big Dig is not a highway with an incidental city adjacent to it. It is a living city that happens to have some major highway infrastructure within it, and that highway infrastructure had to be rebuilt," he said. "This was not elective surgery. It had to be done."
Associated Press writer Rodrique Ngowi contributed to this report.