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The Big Dig — Truth and reconciliation | Frederick P. Salvucci

It all comes down to transparency

By Frederick P. Salvucci
October 3, 2010

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THE LEGACY of the Big Dig is a dramatic improvement in the transportation, aesthetics, and vitality of Boston, and a substantial infusion of federal funding into the regional economy during the 1990s. I am proud to have served as Governor Dukakis’s secretary of transportation in developing the concept and the transparency of process that Dukakis required:

■ Extensive public participation in developing the plan, including its transit commitments, both to comply with environmental law and to build the coalition of support necessary to sustain the project;

■ A two-year process led by the city considering four different plans for knitting the city together, which led to the Rose Kennedy Greenway;

■ An increase in the gas tax in 1988 to ensure funding for statewide roadway and transit improvements;

■ An independent review of project finance with the participation of the primary business organizations, to be sure there were sufficient funds to build the Big Dig project and also revenue streams to maintain it after construction.

Eventually, the Big Dig schedule dramatically slipped, and the cost ultimately increased by 250 percent. Roadway and transport projects in the rest of the state fell far behind, significant quality and safety problems emerged, and the Greenway implementation has been hampered by a lack of follow-through on engineering consistent with the parks and civic buildings that were carefully planned in the 1980s.

What happened?

1. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush persuaded Congress to cap what had been for decades a 90 percent federal share of interstate highway projects, shifting 100 percent of any cost increases to the state. This made staying on-time and within budget even more critical.

2. Although the Dukakis administration had secured environmental approval of the Charles River Bridge after an intense controversy, Governor Weld decided to revisit this decision (over the objections of his public works commissioner), causing a delay of nearly four years, increasing cost by over $1 billion, and leading to the curved underground ramps that caused several fatalities later. Other additions of tunnel and viaduct, plus delay-related inflation, further increased costs.

3. Weld took the position that we don’t need to rely on public managers. So transportation appointees were supposed to manage the Big Dig as well as $400 million annually on other projects, with an ever-decreasing number of public sector managers.

By 1996, the damage had been done and the project was headed for a $15 billion price tag. Weld should have disclosed to the public the new costs and changed federal formula, and increased the local contribution to 50 percent, using either state surplus funds or an increased gas tax. Instead, the administration chose to mislead the public on the size of the problem, failed to complete critical elements, and passed the costs to our children by borrowing against not-yet existing federal funds.

The central issue comes down to transparency. Today, we are enjoying the benefits of the Big Dig, but unless an aggressive preventative maintenance program is adhered to, and transit improvements are completed, congestion will return and the cost to our children will grow. It will take competent public leadership to complete the work, and full disclosure of costs to develop the necessary support.

Frederick P. Salvucci is former secretary of transportation.

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