$14.6 billion later, Boston's Big Dig wraps up

The last big highway section opens this weekend, but concerns on costs dampen party.

With a tellingly simple ribbon-cutting ceremony, the last underground segment of Boston's Big Dig project opens Friday - completing major construction on one of the most complex and controversial engineering projects in human history.

It may not look as dramatic as the Hoover Dam, but the revamp of traffic flows in one of America's oldest cities rivals any past US public-works project in complexity - and outpaced them all in cost.

Its effects will be felt for decades and far beyond Boston: It is changing commuting habits here, may influence the prospects for any similarly large-scale efforts in the future, and has hit the pocketbook of almost every taxpayer in America.

But the Big Dig's scale - at its peak it employed 5,000 construction workers - was rivaled by high costs that have been a source of controversy since the project's inception in 1987 - after President Reagan tried unsuccessfully to wield a penny-pinching veto pen.

That's one reason the city will celebrate this weekend with a whimper rather than a bang - or even a pop. The Boston Pops concert scheduled for underground Thursday was canceled. After spending $14.6 billion (up from an initial forecast of about $4 billion in today's dollars), leaders and taxpayers weren't in the mood to shell out an several hundred thousand dollars for the show.

"It will be a mixed legacy," says David Luberoff, associate director of Harvard's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. "For a lot of people in the region it will be seen as a major positive addition. The farther you move from Boston, the less positively people will view the project."

The two-mile-long underground road will ease commutes - at least for a while - reconnect the city with the harbor, and replace an eyesore of a highway with a necklace of green spaces. Already, the spindly Zakim bridge over the Charles River has become a landmark on the city's skyline.

The city won't reap the full benefits for at least another year, when the hulking overhead highway is finally torn down and traffic patterns are completed. But this weekend's opening is surely the end of an era here. And as traffic flows underground, the city can finally assess whether it was worth the wait - or the price.

Engineering marvels

No one disputes that the project is an engineering marvel - particularly given the added challenge of building among subway tunnels and steam pipes while the city bustled above.

The statistics are staggering: Making room for 7.5 miles of underground roads required excavating 16 million cubic yards of dirt - enough to fill New England's football stadium 16 times, or just 20 percent less than the Chunnel Tunnel built to connect Britain and France.

"It rivals anything in the history of the world built by men," says Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversaw the project. "This is the opening of the Panama Canal. This is an incredible achievement."

Above ground, about half of the rusted carcass of elevated highway nicknamed the "green monster" has already been demolished and workers are racing to tear down as much as possible before the Democratic Convention arrives in July.

In its place, a 1.5 mile greenspace named in honor of John F. Kennedy's mother, Rose, will sprout. Exact plans aren't finalized but will likely include eight acres of parks as well as housing, shops, and cultural venues.

Among taxpayers, though, it was the price tag inspired that the most awe. The project cost was more than double the Panama Canal's in today's dollars. Citizens here and nationwide - 60 percent of the tab was federal - wound up paying far more than expected. Revelations about hidden cost overruns angered many, as statewide highway tolls climbed. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is planning a $150 million lawsuit against firms that managed the project.

The controversy is less important to many who helped build the tunnels, such as Patrick Mogauro, who has worked underground on the project for six years. Underneath his hard hat and layers of dirt-encrusted sweatshirts, the electrician is feeling wistful as he puts some finishing touches on the Big Dig.

Disappearing jobs

He won't miss pulling heavy lines of wire through four-foot vent ducts. But Mogauro notes, "it kept a lot of families fed." At the project's height, 730 members of Mogauro's union alone found steady work installing lighting, ventilation, and alarms. These days, with the project winding down, the job sheet at the local union hall is empty and 1 in 10 members are out of work.

As the opening neared, the median lines were dry, highway signs installed, and all that was missing were commuters. "Another job like this wouldn't be bad," says electricians' union representative Michael Calder. "But I don't see it happening again in my lifetime."

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