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I Dig the Big Dig

PERSPECTIVES

By Andrew S. Chang

The commute to work is often the most pleasurable and most frustrating part of my daily routine. My daily trek from Somerville begins with a short walk to the T station, followed by subway rides on the red and green lines, and concluding with a ride on a shuttle bus to my final destination in Charlestown. The commute can sometimes be unbearable--there is no greater feeling of powerlessness than sitting trapped for 15 minutes inside a motionless subway car between two stations. But the long journey gives me plenty of time to stare off into space, reflect, watch the passersby, even catch up on current affairs by reading over the shoulders of other passengers.

The noisiest and most disorderly stop along my route is the neighborhood near North Station, where the Boston of yesterday and the Boston of tomorrow converge to produce the ugly mess that is the North Boston of today. Here lie the remains of the venerable home of Boston sports, the Garden. Alongside is its newly-erected replacement, the FleetCenter, which casts a domineering shadow over the continuous stream of cars and trucks on Causeway Street below.

Other vehicles amass on the double-decker sandwich of steel overhead, Boston's other Green Monster, the Central Artery. The Artery was built in the 1950s to funnel 75,000 cars each day into and out of the city; today, over 200,000 cars a day crawl along the outdated expressway. Back below on street level, the honking of horns and the colorful shouts of angry drivers harmonize with the rumble and roar of the bulldozers, cement mixers and dump trucks beginning the construction of the proposed direct underground rail link between North and South Station.

The railroad extension is just one small portion of the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project, known (not-so) affectionately to Bostonians as the Big Dig. Scheduled for completion by 2004, the Big Dig is arguably one of the most ambitious urban planning projects ever undertaken, headlined by the creation of eight lanes of new underground expressway to replace the existing artery and the construction of the now-complete third harbor tunnel connecting South Boston to Logan Airport. The depression of the Artery will also clear the way for 26 acres of open park space downtown.

Ever since its conception, the Big Dig has been an easy target for criticism and jokes. The prodigal son of Massachusetts and Boston politics, the Big Dig has been continually plagued by mismanagement and ever-increasing costs. The first official estimate placed the project's price tag at $2.5 billion; today, the total costs are estimated at $8 billion, making it the largest publicly funded project in the United States today. In 1987, then-President Ronald W. Reagan cited the project as an example of pork-barrel spending and vetoed federal funding for it--but the veto was overridden thanks to the enormous clout of the Commonwealth's Democratic heavy-weights on Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 and the late Speaker of the House Thomas M. "Tip" O'Neill.

But construction of the Central Artery project has effectively paralyzed parts of the city for at least the next 10 years. The Big Dig is not only responsible for added traffic problems and longer commute times, but the construction has even cut away at the Boston economy through unforeseen side-effects, such as a drop in the leasing of downtown office space. And just last week, a Big Dig construction crew accidentally broke a water main, interrupting water flow to many downtown businesses and government buildings.

I have never been a fan of big government projects, yet I have come to conclusion that the Big Dig, in spite of its poor implementation and its many accompanying nuisances, is a necessary investment that will help maintain the city's prosperity well into the next century. Although I still scoff at the ridiculously bloated bureaucracy that is Massachusetts state government, it is cooperative efforts between the city and the suburbs, such as the MBTA and the Metropolitan District Commission (which maintains many of Boston's parks and historic sites), that have helped keep downtown Boston the center of the region's economic, cultural and recreational activities. Public projects like the Big Dig also build civic pride, and carry the added bonus of temporary new jobs.

The consequences of inadequate public investment are all too apparent in the economic and physical decay that has eaten away at many of America's largest urban areas. It is not surprising that a city like my hometown of Detroit has suffered greatly due to the poor maintenance of its already deficient infrastructure and the lack of any strong ties with its wealthy suburbs (although Detroit's decay can be attributed to many other factors as well). Although Boston will never degrade to the extent that Detroit has, improvement projects like the Big Dig will ensure that Boston remains a vibrant and popular city for many years to come.

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