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Boston Begins the `Big Dig'

By Max BootSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1992


THE steam-belching dinosaurs lumber over a primeval landscape of mud and dirt. These massive bulldozers, steam shovels, and trucks have transformed a pier-side parking lot beyond recognition: Where once hundreds of cars were parked, today there are towering mounds of dirt and yawning holes in the ground.

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Before long, "Subaru Pier" - a former arrival point for the Japanese automobiles - will undergo an even more dramatic makeover. Once the concrete is poured and the walls have been constructed, this mud lot will become an entrance to a tunnel running through the polluted depths of Boston Harbor.

The construction going on now at "Subaru Pier" is the first phase of what state transportation officials say is the largest public works project currently under way in the United States.

The official name for this endeavor is the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, but Bostonians call it the "Big Dig." And big it is, in every sense of the word: The project will cost federal and state taxpayers a stunning $5.8 billion, employ about 5,000 people, and take a decade to complete.

The rationale for this sweeping construction effort is simple: Downtown Boston has some of the worst traffic gridlock in the country. A two-mile stretch of Interstate 93 (I-93) running through the heart of downtown is constantly choked with cars. So are the two tunnels that carry traffic between Boston and Logan International Airport.

"If we do nothing, the existing central artery will be jammed up for 14 to 16 hours per day in 2010," says Project Manager Peter Zuk. "That's clearly unacceptable both from the transportation point of view and from the air quality point of view."

Besides the nightmare of nonstop traffic jams, there is an equally compelling aesthetic argument against I-93: Its elevated structure is an eyesore that cuts downtown off from the waterfront and separates Boston's North End from the rest of the city.

The Big Dig is an attempt to remedy some of these problems. The project will construct a third harbor tunnel, doubling the traffic capacity from downtown to the airport. It will also tear down the elevated portion of I-93 and replace it with a depressed roadway beneath the existing route.

Once it is finished, sometime around the year 2000, the Big Dig will have transformed the environment of Bean Town's waterfront area. The elevated roadway that casts a gloomy shadow over a wide swath of downtown will be replaced by 27 acres of parkland. Bicyclists and pedestrians will roam where cars sit bumper-to-bumper today.

Some environmentalists see this as an example of urban beautification the rest of America should follow.

"There's no doubt about it - Boston will be a more pleasant city to live in," says Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. "The quality of life in a city is determined by its open space."

But not everyone here shares that sanguine assessment. In fact, ever since plans for the Big Dig were unveiled in 1983, it has run into a wall of almost unrelenting opposition from various parts of the community.

Fishermen have been concerned that blasting in the harbor would damage lobster traps. Vendors in the North End's centuries-old Haymarket, adjacent to I-93, have worried that construction would ruin their livelihood. Almost everyone in Boston has been fretting that tunnel-digging would bring swarms of rats out of the sewers and onto the streets - which actually occurred in the 1950s when the second harbor tunnel was constructed.