The 'Big Dig' in the Hole

The Federal Highway Administration had no choice but to shuttle up to Boston to see what's going on. That city's "Big Dig" to bury a stretch of elevated interstate that has long marred its downtown suddenly registered a $1.4 billion cost overrun. And the federal government is footing 60 percent of the bill.

In truth, there was nothing sudden about the overrun. The project's estimated cost now stands at $12 billion, making it the most expensive public-works undertaking in US history. The tab has been edging over budget for years. Management knew this, and tried to lop off exit ramps here, landscaping there. But unforeseen engineering hurdles (all this digging, after all, is in the middle of a very old city center that had to keep running) and rising labor costs (spiked by a hot economy) made red ink flow.

Big Dig managers finally made known the extent of the overrun in early February - to outcries in Massachusetts and Washington. It was charged, rightly, that the project's executives had prepared no one for this, even as the state went ahead with new bond issues and Washington OK'd further federal expenditures.

The highway agency task force now filtering through Big Dig books and inspecting construction sites should be able to clarify whether federal billions have been spent wisely. State officials, while also shocked by the overrun, say the feds will find a project that's technically impressive and on schedule for completion in 2004. If they're wrong, the state may have to pick up an even larger chunk of remaining costs. Massachusetts already faces a mid-March deadline for telling the federal government how it will cover the recently divulged billion-plus overrun.

If there's a lesson in all this, it must be similar to that learned by homeowners who find that remodeling almost never ends up costing what it started out costing. Now magnify that to remodeling the center of a 370-year-old city.

We sympathize with the Big Dig's frazzled managers - to a point. But they should have kept the "homeowners" - state and federal governments and the taxpayers they represent - better informed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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