In Boston, a 'Big Dig' into taxpayer pockets

A sudden, 13 percent cost jump in nation's biggest-ever road project sparks federal audits, commuter angst.

Michael Form found the Big Dig a "reasonable idea." But when he heard that his daily tolls may double to pay for the traffic-taming project, that reasonable idea quickly soured.

"I'm not against paying taxes, but this is patently unfair," he says. "This is the type of thing that started the Boston Tea Party."

State officials revealed on Feb. 1 that Boston's Big Dig, the costliest public-works project in US history, is now $1.4 billion over its $10.8 billion budget. The announcement, coming just hours after the Federal Highway Administration had approved the project's annual budget, has sparked outrage among Washington regulators as well as Bay State residents.

Suddenly, the Big Dig's finances look more snarled than the labyrinthine road system the project is designed to untangle.

Cost overruns are typical of complex construction projects, but the amount in this case could leave a lasting impact on Massachusetts finances and future public-works projects.

"That's not a cost overrun, that's a cost runaway," says Barbara Gardner (D), majority whip in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. "I'd be surprised if the federal government ever committed to a project of this magnitude again."

Audits galore

US Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, one of the Big Dig's harshest critics, this week called for an investigation of whether project managers broke any laws by misleading the federal government about costs.

Separately, the Federal Highway Administration launched an audit of the project Wednesday, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission is examining whether bond investors were kept in the dark about the burgeoning costs.

With nicknames like the Big Pig, the Dig Deeper, and the Big Lie, the Big Dig has been a source of contention since construction began in 1993.

The current six-lane north-south highway through downtown Boston will be replaced by a 10-lane underground expressway and two new bridges crossing the Charles River. The Massachusetts Turnpike will also be extended beneath Boston Harbor to Logan International Airport.

The immediate question is not whether the project will be completed, but where the money will come from.

Higher tolls are backed by Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) but are controversial since they affect only suburban commuters north and west of Boston - like Mr. Form and his wife.

They live in Southborough, right off the Massachusetts Turnpike, and they drive into Boston separately. Together, they pay as much as $1,000 a year in tolls, but that would double if Mr. Cellucci's plan becomes reality.

Most upsetting to commuters is that the Big Dig will most benefit people who live south of the city, where no toll roads or tunnels exist. "I'm not saying I don't want to pay for my share, I just don't want to pay for everybody else's, too," Form says.

Past precedent

True to its nickname, the project involves massive underground digging, making it one of history's most complicated roadbuilding feats, says David Luberoff, a public-works expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "And the more complicated a project, the more possibility for cost overruns."

For instance, the Denver International Airport started at $1.5 billion and ended up costing almost $6 billion. A Los Angeles light-rail system was budgeted at $200 million, but took $900 million to finish.

"It's not unusual for a project to wind up costing four to five times more," Mr. Luberoff says. "But if you are honest with voters, it's possible some worthy projects wouldn't get built."

He points to the Erie Canal, which was extremely difficult and costly to build. But it was so successful once completed, it quickly paid for itself and spurred similar projects around the country.

So since it seems unlikely that work will stop on the Big Dig, Luberoff says, "The question is, what is the politically palatable and fiscally responsible way to finish the project?"

As the audits unfold, Uncle Sam may become an increasingly reluctant helper. Roughly two-thirds of the money so far has been federal, and some lawmakers outside New England believe the project is mismanaged and drains money from other states.

A similar geographic tussle is visible within the state. Legislators from the North Shore and western suburbs, unhappy with Cellucci's current plan, have joined forces and are working on a broad-based plan of their own - minus immediate toll increases.

"We are really enraged over this," says Representative Gardner, who says her phone has been "ringing off the hook" since the governor's toll-hike announcement.

The lawmaker says only about 20 percent of the traffic from the west-of-Boston suburbs she represents will be destined for Logan Airport or the new expressway. But suburbs west and north would shoulder virtually all the new costs. "The inequity of it is maddening," she says.

Gas-tax more equitable?

Gardner favors a gas tax, which would hit drivers equally, or dipping into the state's $4 billion surplus to help cover costs.

While she isn't surprised that the Big Dig is over budget, "the magnitude of how much is a surprise," she says.

What was once a $3.4 billion concept, Gardner says, is likely to wind up a $15 billion reality.

In addition, says Rep. Douglas Petersen (D), other public-works projects across Massachusetts are not getting funded because "the Big Dig is eating up all the state's money." He and his colleagues will be meeting next week with state officials to find out the reason for the cost overruns and their true figure.

"The lid is now blown, despite what state officials say," says Mr. Petersen, who represents Marblehead, a city north of Boston. "We would have preferred it be better managed and better financed, but we've got to step up to the plate and rescue this thing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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