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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.

People pace, peek at Artery tunnel

600,000 walkers tread future I-93

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 8/26/2002

Bearing bottled water, cameras, and strollers, about 600,000 people descended yesterday into a cool, subterranean sliver of Boston's future. With the zeal of tourists, they snapped photographs of steel rods and hulking construction equipment, and with the attitude of true Bostonians, they pronounced judgment as soon as they re-emerged into the sunlight: The newly submerged Central Artery is a marvel.

When it opens in December, the northbound side of the 11/2-mile-long tunnel will ferry vehicles beneath the streets of downtown Boston and empty them onto the soaring Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Offered the chance to walk the route before they drive it, people began lining up at 8:30 a.m. for the noon tour. Massachusetts Turnpike Authority officials had to open the tunnel 40 minutes early to relieve crowding on the streets above.

''It's amazing to get down there and see the amount of time that went into it, the amount of money, the amount of people, the amount of material,'' said Louise Owens, 41, of Everett, who posed for a picture at the tunnel entrance just behind Big Dig headquarters at 185 Kneeland St. ''It's got to be better than what we have now.''

The response delighted Turnpike officials buffeted by years of headlines about soaring cost overruns and political bickering over the $14.6 billion project, which includes the Ted Williams Tunnel and complex new interchanges with the Massachusetts Turnpike. The southbound lanes of the Central Artery are to be finished by the end of 2003.

In contrast to a similar tour in May of the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge - when rain and Celtics traffic caused havoc for an estimated 250,000 would-be bridge walkers - most of the tunnel tourists waited only about an hour to enter. Officials sealed off streets, strung yellow rope to create orderly lines, and had dozens of guides pointing the way to the six-hour event.

Inside the tunnel, signs on the white-and-maroon-tiled walls taught the tourists a few facts about the massive project. For example, between 1999 and 2002, workers completed about $3 million worth of construction every day, and more steel-box girders were used in the Big Dig than in any other construction project. Guided by white tube lights, crowds walked to the deepest spot, 120 feet below South Station, viewed maps and cross-sections of the project, then trekked back up.

''I'm thinking about becoming an engineer when I grow up, so it was neat to see it all together,'' said Brian Stager, 14, of Reading, who came with his parents and sister. ''How they got under all these buildings without them collapsing - I just found that pretty cool.''

Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello called the turnout a ''morale booster'' for Big Dig employees who often see only anger from motorists confounded by traffic delays, rerouted streets, and shifting lanes. Although some 35,000 people have toured sections of the Big Dig since 1991, yesterday's walk of the nearly finished northbound tunnel was the first time the masses got a glimpse.

''Events like this get everyone feeling, `Hey, maybe we are building the right thing,''' Amorello said.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said, ''I'd like to see the critics come down here and see this project. This will change the face of Boston.''

Some in the crowd remained skeptical, however, that the new Central Artery's additional lanes, fewer exits, and 450 cameras and electronic sensors will herald the end of the gridlock that often prevails there now.

''I hope it does all the things they said it was going to do,'' said Steve Lawrence, 43, of Westford. ''It's nice to see that it's coming to an end.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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