The country's costliest highway project, in Boston, reaches its first milestone of success - but at a price

Boston - famous for baked beans, Paul Revere, and the Red Sox - now has another claim to fame. The most expensive stretch of highway ever built. It will cost more than the gross national product of Bolivia or all the houses in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Part of the $10 billion project known as "The Big Dig" will burrow under downtown Boston in an amazing engineering feat. A new eight-lane expressway tunnel will replace a rusting old elevated central artery clogged with traffic.

But after four years, and before the major portion of the project has been dug, the Big Dig has become the costliest per-mile highway in US history.

So many problems have surfaced that the completion date has been delayed from 1998 to 2004. Nearly a dozen federal and state agencies have leveled charges of mismanagement, excessive cost overruns, and lack of oversight at the project. By comparison, the 32-mile-long Channel Tunnel between France and England cost $16 billion and was completed last year only a year off schedule.

But come Dec. 15, Peter Zuk, director of the Big Dig (officially known as the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project) expects a brief ray of light amid the criticism.

On that day, if all goes well, a part of the Big Dig - the Third Harbor Tunnel running under Boston Harbor at a cost of more than $1.3 billion - will be opened with fanfare. Commercial traffic will begin flowing between downtown Boston and Logan International Airport. (Two older tunnels currently move cars and taxis back and forth to Logan.) After some 20 years of political maneuvering, lawsuits, a mountain of reports, and heated debates, one piece of the Big Dig will actually be operational.

"I take a lot of criticism from the media," says Mr. Zuk, who became director of the troubled project for the Massachusetts Highway Department in 1991. "The tunnel will talk for me."

Since 1987, the estimated cost of the project has soared from $2.5 billion to a $10 billion. The project is 7.5 miles long, with a little more than three miles running beneath downtown Boston.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, long an opponent of the project and chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, has questioned whether the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel (CA/T), which is 85 percent federally funded, should even continue.

To supporters, the original promise of the Big Dig remains a breathtaking vision: to replace an eyesore cutting through the center of the city with an intermodal transportation system that will both transform the downtown and waterfront area and help shape a vital economic future for the region.

The present central artery carries some 190,000 cars daily, although it was designed in the 1950s to carry 75,000, officials say. The new, wider central artery will have a capacity of 250,000 cars a day. Bus, subway, and commuter train lines will be expanded. Where the artery plunges underground, acres and acres of new green space are planned in the heart of the city. How to pay for the landscaping and maintenance topside, however, has yet to be fully determined.

Boston's business community supports CA/T enthusiastically. So do local unions. The Boston Globe has stated editorially that the "project will be worth every penny ... only if it speeds traffic through the biggest bottleneck in New England and enhances the most economically vital community in the region."

But the project's critics, including several state agencies, the federal government's General Accounting Office, some members of Congress, and Boston Magazine's investigative series, are a chorus singing the details of the problems. A spokesman for the GAO said it will issue a second report on the project in spring 1996. Several state agencies recently formed a task force to monitor the project more closely.

New credibility

Zuk sees the December opening of the tunnel as providing some credibility to at least temporarily muffle the voices of discontent.

But the new tunnel, like much of this labyrinthian project, is touched with an Alice in Wonderland quality. Logic is there, but it becomes "curiouser and curiouser," as Alice said. It's the Cheshire cat wearing a hard hat.

For instance, in the rush to meet the Dec.15 deadline for the tunnel opening, temporary safety and control systems will have to be installed at an estimated cost of $5 million. The reason?

The construction of the permanent $136 million control center, with some 50 color monitors keeping an eye on the vastness of CA/T, is years from completion. And the interim control center, designed to fill in, can't meet the Dec.15 deadline either. What to do?

Bring in a trailer and establish a temporary interim center. Use temporary cameras attached to temporary electrical cables to monitor the tunnel.

CA/T officials say that by accelerating the tunnel opening, the savings in "time, fuel, and reduced traffic accidents, will save the region about $8 million." In the new tunnel - lined with tens of thousands of white tiles - travel from South Boston to Logan airport is expected to be five to 10 minutes, down from 35 to 50 minutes using the existing artery and tunnels.

The toll rate for the tunnel, however, has yet to be determined, along with the mechanism for taking the toll.

What Zuk says is the main cause of the delays in designing and constructing the control center is something nearly all critics and proponents of CA/T can agree on: Boston is an old city built mostly on landfill in an estuarine environment. Underground surprises abound. Unknown utility lines, abandoned foundations, and unexpected soil conditions can force expensive changes in engineering, and increase costs.

Less disruption, more expense

In addition, the extraordinary effort to do all the CA/T construction while allowing Boston go about its commerce and life with minimum interruption adds to the costs.

So, when unexpected soil conditions in East and South Boston delayed the completion of access roads to the tunnel, officials say, these conditions acted like the first domino in a row, helping thwart the start of construction for the control center. But as revealed in a 1994 report from the Massachusetts Inspector General's office, forces other than geologic ones were at work too.

DeLeuw, Cather & Co., a design firm, was hired in 1991 to design the control center. It quickly became mired in mismanagement, cost overruns, and delays. The Inspector General's report cited DeLeuw's "inability to meet its contractual obligations, poor performance, and contract violations." The additional costs of these problems, with state approval, have almost doubled the original DeLeuw contract to around $30 million.

According to the report, Zuk said in 1992 that if the control center contracts were delayed, 16 other major contracts would be delayed at a total cost of $310,000 per day.

"We have a saying in the construction industry," says a civil engineer close to CA/T, "Murphy lives on every project, and there is a whole family of Murphys on this one."

"I'll go out on a limb and say that by the time the Central Artery is completed," says Joe DeNucci, Massachusetts State Auditor, "the price will be up around $15 to $16 billion." His office has issued five reports on the project, identifying $127 million in waste.

Who Will Pay, and How, For Rising Price Tag?

Because excavation has not begun on the eight lanes to be built eight stories under downtown, critics say costs could continue to rise.

The Big Dig is funded by the US Department of Transportation through the Federal Highway Administration for up to 85 percent of the total cost. Massachusetts pays the rest. Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff (B/PB), a joint venture of two private construction firms with worldwide reputations, is responsible for the design and engineering of the project under contract with the Massachusetts Highway Department.

The Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C., which exposes waste in government, states in a 1995 report that the federal government has "taken a back seat to Massachusetts and Bechtel/Parsons by allowing them to take full control of [CA/T]."

"My criticism of that report," Zuk says, "is that they didn't spend five minutes talking to me." He says the state's decision to hire B/PB to design and construct the project was the right one. "Bechtel is part of a structure that does not allow them to be in total control," he says, citing review procedures and daily monitoring.

Yet B/PB has nearly 1,000 employees on the project, and the state has 58, with some actually paid by B/PB. A 1994 report by the Massachusetts House of Representatives concluded that this arrangement results in "an inherent conflict in which the principal management contractor is often placed in the position of overseeing its own work."

Zuk insists that B/PB, after they design the work, is "the most prepared entity to supervise on our behalf.

"Deficient public employees are not being fleeced by big, bad businessmen," Zuk says. He cites the magnitude of the project and the complex engineering as the primary causes of past problems. In addition, inflation and a host of pre-construction promises have increased the cost.

"Tighter cost-saving measures are in place now," he says, "and overall scrutiny has increased. We have a management review under way by an outside firm, a top-to-bottom review of the joint venture and the state office. We've also initiated a cost-recovery program," he says, noting that out of 30 cases, project managers will try to recover costs in fewer than 10.

Through "value engineering" - a review of plans at the design stage to find better and cheaper ways to do construction - Zuk says that $320 million was saved. In a 1994 Federal Highway Administration (FHA) report, CA/T's value-engineering program was cited "as a model for other projects," but criticized for not going even further in cutting costs.

"Until you get down to the nuts and bolts, there is no way to really determine the actual savings," says Neil Cohen, Deputy Chief for Contract Audit and Review of the Massachusetts Inspector General. "These [value-engineering] savings are theoretical."

The FHA report concluded that the value-engineering teams "failed to estimate life-cycle costs," or the full cost to build, operate, and maintain facilities.

According to the GAO, as of April 1995, all completed Big Dig contracts had average cost overruns of 16 percent above the original estimate. Zuk says in the future such costs can be held to under 10 percent, a figure the Federal Highway Administration says may be "optimistic."

CA/T officials insist the initial figures for the project were "conceptual," not unusual in the construction industry. As environmental and technical considerations changed, along with demands by community groups, officials knew the costs would rise. Two lawsuits are pending over a section of the project.

Douglas Foy, executive director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, says, "Cities can't solve congestion problems by building new highways. The roads just fill up with cars. The important part of this project is improvements in transit alternatives: rail, bus, and subway."

Before CA/T construction started, the foundation won a lawsuit against the state, forcing it to include extensive assurances in the project related to environmental concerns. "What the project will do is just bury the cars," says Mr. Foy, "and if traffic increases, it will be devastating to Boston because eventually those cars go off on local roads."

The big question hanging over the Big Dig now is who will pay for it up to 2004 - and after - even if costs are brought under control?

Federal highway funds stop late in 1997, even though some funds would be available to Massachusetts under a formula applied to all states. Currently under consideration in Congress is legislation that would add to the project $700 million in federal highway funds that were previously allocated to the state but not used.

As those in charge grapple for ways to pay for the project and to reduce costs, they have excluded more than $1 billion previously included in cost estimates from the latest finance plan for CA/T.

With Governor William Weld's approval, those costs will likely be apportioned to state agencies that benefit directly from the project, such as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. In fact, the Turnpike Authority will operate the new tunnel.

Discussions are under way in the legislature about possible toll increases in the future on the Massachusetts Turnpike west of Boston to help pay for the Big Dig.

But the once powerful Massachusetts delegation to Congress, which muscled funds for the Big Dig out of Congress in the late 1970s, now lives with a Republican-controlled Congress. Slashing programs and federal expenditures are the order of the day.

The Big Dig, because it has appeared to be a rogue spender of vast sums of taxpayers money, could be in for some rocky times.

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