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Big Dig failures threaten federal funding

Future projects may be shortchanged

WASHINGTON -- Long before it became known as the Big Dig, it was ``Tip's Tunnel," a sardonic testament to the extraordinary political muscle of the House speaker from Cambridge who plowed the project forward in Washington while skeptics were powerless before his will.

As deadlines passed and costs skyrocketed from $1 billion to more than $14 billion, the Central Artery/Tunnel project championed by the late Democratic speaker, Thomas P. ``Tip" O'Neill Jr., came to represent the worst excesses of pork-barrel politics. Many members of Congress cheered when the federal government finally moved to stop cutting checks in 2000.

Now the Big Dig's tortured history is haunting Massachusetts officials in the wake of the fatal tunnel accident. Not only does it mean that the Bay State stands virtually no chance of getting another federal dime for the project , it means the state's leaders could find themselves at the back of the line the next time they want a large-scale project from the federal government.

``I don't want to even mention the words `Big Dig' to any of my colleagues," said Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who represents O'Neill's old district and sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. ``They can't seem to forget it. Their attitude is, `You had your turn. It's our turn now.'

``It absolutely will impact our ability" to get funding for other projects in Massachusetts, Capuano added. ``Can it be overcome? Yes. Can we continue to overcome it? I'm not sure. But I'll tell you one thing: I'm tired of carrying this particular weight."

In Washington, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the giant highway project is the perception that Massachusetts landed one of the biggest government handouts ever. When Governor Mitt Romney vowed last month to ``ask for federal money" to help with the state's $20 million Big Dig safety review, the statement drew a harsh and swift response from lawmakers who are tired of sending Massachusetts money for a project that state officials seem to have failed to oversee properly.

``Another special appropriation for it? No," said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and a leading critic of government waste. ``What you ought to do is prosecute the people who have taken the money inappropriately and get them to cover the cost of repairing it."

The collapse of a ceiling panel that killed Milena Del Valle adds to a long list of project issues that have angered lawmakers. With state officials staring at the prospects of tens of millions of dollars in potential repair costs, that history -- and the much-diminished clout of the Massachusetts congressional delegation -- looms large.

``It's obviously been a disaster," said Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. ``It's outrageous that the cost has been allowed to escalate, and it's just so discouraging that it was done so poorly on top of costing so much. It's a symbol of failure."

Gregg's experience with the project explains some of the lingering anger with Massachusetts over the Big Dig. In 1984, when he was a junior House member from a district less than an hour's drive from Boston, Gregg tried to strike funding for the project from a transportation bill.

Gregg called it ``an exercise of the Light Brigade," the intrepid yet suicidal British cavalry unit immortalized by Tennyson -- and indeed it was. He recalls O'Neill making a rare venture onto the House floor to personally chew him out, followed closely by Representative J. Joseph Moakley, a South Boston Democrat and a protege of the speaker's who was emerging as a power in his own right.

``I said, `I think this is going to cost several billion dollars,' and they came out on the floor and made it clear to me that my position was wrong," Gregg said with a laugh.

Today, Gregg helps control the government purse strings on the budget committee, and the all-Democratic congressional delegation from Massachusetts is enduring its 12th straight year in the minority.

Indeed, despite boasts of his sway in Washington, Romney realizes that he can't expect federal officials to send more money to the Big Dig, said Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor's communications director. Fehrnstrom said Romney's initial request for money pertained only to costs associated with investigating the accident and reviewing the project's safety, and wasn't a call for a major infusion of cash.

Although the governor won't rule out asking for federal help for the repairs, Fehrnstrom said Romney believes the Turnpike Authority and the state's rainy day fund should cover the bills.

``I think it would be unreasonable to expect that Congress would suddenly turn the money tap back on," Fehrnstrom said.

Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, longtime champions of the project, also said that they would respect the 2000 agreement -- enshrined into law by Congress -- to cap Big Dig federal funding at $8.55 billion. They said the builders who made mistakes in the Central Artery project should have to pay for fixing them.

``The federal spending cap is a reality -- it can't be wished away," Kerry said.

Members of Congress remember the Big Dig as the granddaddy of pork; it's by far the nation's most expensive public works project, and the federal government has paid three-fifths of the costs. It's emblematic of a time long ago when Massachusetts possessed outsized political muscle in Washington, said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

``It was a gold-plated boondoggle that turned into a lemon quicker than you can say `wasteful spending,' " Ashdown said. ``Massachusetts had the goods at that time, and I think it's fair to say they don't anymore."

Ashdown said that in the annals of pork, the Big Dig is the equivalent of baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr.'s record of playing in 2,632 consecutive major-league games: unapproachable, iconic, and jaw-dropping.

Asked about the Big Dig recently, Representative James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, had a quick statistic ready: ``It is seven times the cost of Interstate 35 from Duluth, [Minn.], 1,835 miles to Laredo, Texas." That highway takes a driver roughly from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.

To many lawmakers, the Big Dig invites comparisons to the ``bridge to nowhere" in Alaska that drew so much condemnation last year. At $230 million, the bridge from a virtually uninhabited island to a small wilderness town will cost federal taxpayers less than 3 percent of what they have paid for the Big Dig.

Because project managers don't know the extent of the problems with the tunnels, they can't tell how much repairs will cost. Lawsuits and higher insurance premiums are all but certain, and that could take the project's cost well beyond its current $14.6 billion price tag.

Even if no more federal money is necessary, the Big Dig's business in Washington is far from over. The Federal Highway Administration is withholding the final $81 million appropriation for the project pending approval of Big Dig finances, a review that has been complicated by the additional questions raised by the accident. At least three federal investigations have been launched, while congressional committees consider inquiries of their own.

In seeking to resuscitate the state's reputation in Washington, Romney faces a political test: Can a governor who has touted his lobbying prowess among his fellow Republicans deliver for his state?

Romney comes to the task with credibility among congressional leaders who consider him a rising star in the party and remember his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Thad Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he's impressed that Romney has taken charge of the Big Dig.

``I'll be looking to Governor Romney about his thoughts about what the federal role and responsibility should be," said Cochran, a Mississippi Republican. ``He has a lot of influence here in Washington, so his being where he is now with his new authorities, he could make the difference I think."

But the governor will have to overcome the skepticism of scores of other lawmakers who still bear scars from lost battles over the Big Dig.

``I lost every time in our attempts to curb the spending on it and have closer oversight of it," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who, like Romney, is considering a 2008 presidential run. ``When the whole long saga is written in books, it'll astonish people."

Could he foresee more federal money going to the Big Dig?

``Oh, no," McCain said. ``But anything can happen with this project."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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