July 18, 2006

“Big Dig” collapse a blow to urban dream

By Jason Szep

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)