Surviving Boston's Big Dig

Dirt, noise, and disruption surface as Boston's Central Artery project goes underground - A letter from Boston

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DRIVING around Boston is no picnic. Besides the narrow one-way streets and notoriously rude drivers, commuters frequently complain about the badly designed city highway system. Perhaps one of the most talked about highway issues in this town is the state's $5 billion Central Artery reconstruction plan. The project involves rebuilding parts of the city highway underground as well as constructing a new tunnel under Boston harbor. The project promises to reduce traffic congestion, create 15,000 new jobs, and beautify the downtown area.

Although the ``big dig,'' as it is called here, has been in the planning stages for decades, construction is slated to begin next spring. Boston area motorists, environmentalists, and neighborhood residents are abuzz about new and old issues after a public hearing on the state's plan last week.

One of the newest concerns is what to do with the 9 million cubic yards of material to be dug up in order to put the artery underground. The so-called ``fill,'' however, is not ordinary dirt but a combination of old wood, cinders, bricks, and soil left over from the days when Boston, which used to be primarily wetlands, was filled in.

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State officials want to dump it all on Spectacle Island, a small piece of land in Boston Harbor used as a garbage dump until it was abandoned in 1960. They plan to cover over the island garbage with the fill and make it into a park.

Environmental concerns

The Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and environmental groups, however, are concerned about preserving water quality and fish habitats near the island. They say the state has not fully investigated alternative dumping sites. Both the Army Corps and EPA must decide whether or not to grant the state a permit to dump the fill on Spectacle Island.

``I think [the island] is a convenient alternative, but it is at the expense of whatever is in those waters or on that island,'' says Bill Lawless, chief of the regulatory operations at the Army Corps of Engineers.

State officials say the communities they explored as alternatives would not be appropriate. Dumping the salty fill would contaminate ground water, they say. Transporting the fill would mean 1,200 truckloads a day on local streets.

``One of the beauties of Spectacle Island is that it's right off Boston Harbor. ... You can barge to it,'' says Claire Barrett, state Central Artery project spokeswoman.

Neighborhood residents and environmentalists are concerned that the project, to be completed in 1998, will handicap the entire city with noise, dust, and disruption. North End businesses are concerned about losing customers. East Boston residents, like Rosemarie Ruggerio, are worried about ventilation stacks from the tunnels polluting her neighborhood. She says the state would be better off finding ways to improve public transportation.

``We have to stop thinking of cars as the primary means of transportation,'' she says.

Tangle threatens to crisscross Cambridge

Environmental groups are also concerned about the ``Scheme Z'' design plan for the new highway. They say the plan would create a total 18-lane crossing of the Charles River, would use up park land, and create a tangle of wide, unsightly highway ramps in Cambridge. ``We feel work was not applied as vigorously to alternatives,'' says John Monroe, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

State transportation officials say the benefits of the new highway will outweigh the drawbacks. The existing artery, built in the 1950s, has a high accident rate and now carries more than twice the traffic it was built to handle, they say.

Many Boston city motorists and commuters applaud the new plan. Says taxicab driver Charlie Thornhill, ``It looks like it's going to be a better designed road,'' he says. ``Besides, [the present one] is ugly and it's falling apart.''

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