Boston Tunnel Symbol of Political Era Nearly Buried

IN Massachusetts today, they're opening a tunnel and ending an era.

With great fanfare, Boston christens the new Ted Williams Tunnel - the first segment of the most expensive public works project in America.

Practically, the four-lane tube that slips beneath Boston Harbor will give long-suffering local drivers a quicker way to get to and from the airport. Symbolically, it signals the passing of a socioeconomic-political era that flourished in the city for a century.

The Central Artery project - renovation of a downtown thoroughfare costing more than $1 billion per mile, of which the tunnel is a part - marks the last hurrah of Boston's ''work and wages'' Irish politics, an alliance of contractors, unions, and merchants that is dying out.

For the nation, it may represent one of the last large-scale urban improvements for the automobile in an era when federal funds for these projects are becoming as scarce as downtown parking spaces.

''It's the end of the Irish run,'' says Richard Hinds, a Boston University historian. ''Demographics are changing. The unions have expanded and diversified. Boston is overbuilt.''

The Ted Williams Tunnel, which cost $1.95 billion, is just the first segment of a plan to sink Boston's Central Artery eight stories below the city and restore the historic downtown waterfront area. Named after the irascible former Red Sox power hitter, the tunnel doubles the number of lanes running beneath the harbor, providing access to the airport and the North Shore.

The 1.6-mile stretch won't relieve the city's traffic woes overnight. For now, it is only open to taxis, trucks, and other commercial vehicles. Passenger cars won't be able to ply its spacious lanes until 2001.

The broader project, which won't be finished until at least 2004, has been mired in cost overruns, delays, and, according to critics, mismanagement.

There are three reasons why the Central Artery project, more commonly known as the Big Dig, may be the last of its kind: politics, money, and space.

From the days of Mayor James Curley in the early years of this century, Boston has been a run by an Irish political culture centered around public works. Engineers, laborers, and shopkeepers thrived off the money of big projects. It was a political scheme that served the city and state well through the 1980s. With long-serving Democrats in Washington, including House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Massachusetts garnered a disproportionate share of federal funds.

From backhoes to BMWs

Perhaps nothing epitomizes that political strength more than the Big Dig. Conceived in the late 1970s, it is a public works project of unparalleled scale - a maze of tunnels and ramps designed to shuffle 250,000 cars through the middle of Boston every day.

But by the time the backhoes give way to BMWs, the political culture that spawned the Big Dig will be gone. What's emerging, however, is unclear. The Democratic New Deal order is fading, labor is changing, city politics are becoming increasing multiethnic.

Although the Irish started arriving in Boston in the 1840s, they did not become the dominant political force until the early 1900s. Boston historian Jack Beatty sees a parallel. The city has its first non-Irish mayor since 1925, and the fastest growing segments of the population are Asian and Hispanic.

''New types are moving in,'' he says. ''What the change in politics will be, we don't know. But it changed Boston completely when the Irish moved in.''

Cost overruns

Money represents another factor. First estimated to cost $2.5 billion and be finished by 1998, the Big Dig is now expected to exceed $10 billion before the final lane paint is sprayed in 2004. At 85 percent federal funding, that's a problem. The first Republican-drawn federal budget in 40 years provides no new money for highway projects.

The Big Dig may the last project of its kind for another special reason as well. Downtown Boston, like New York or San Francisco or Chicago, is packed.

That had some people hoping Boston would pioneer creative new forms of public transportation instead of expanding the passageways for automobiles.

''Building highways in the center of cities where people live and businesses are located is an increasingly expensive proposition,'' says Douglas Foy, executive director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. ''You're not going to solve the congestion problems of downtown Boston by jamming a bigger highway there. You'll just induce more traffic.''

If the Big Dig spells the end of something, it also marks a renewal. When the Central Artery was built in 1951, its elevated girders cut an ugly and noisy swath through Boston's historic center. Traffic rumbles right next to Faneuil Hall and the Haymarket, and obscures the harbor and Old North Church.

The Big Dig will sink the thoroughfare underground, leaving a belt of prime real estate available for, perhaps, public gardens and quaint shops. That alone, Mr. Beatty says, is worth the price, boosting tourism and restoring the cradle of the nation.

''The main asset of Boston's future is Boston's past,'' he says. ''The aesthetic part is very important. To be able to see out to the harbor is a tremendous legacy. The elevated highway has been a violation of this city.''

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